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It's a 1-Man Show at Show Low's Kmart

Fire: The store manager stayed when the town evacuated. Emergency crews are delighted.

June 28, 2002|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHOW LOW, Ariz. — When the nation's largest wildfire forced the evacuation of this mountain town Saturday evening, Rob Morones hurriedly sent his employees away--but he remained behind to single-handedly serve customers around the clock at his Kmart.

As smoke cloaks the city, Morones works, eats and sleeps beside his cash register, selling snacks, underwear, toiletries, even pillows to thousands of firefighters and law enforcement officers who have taken over the city.

He closes for a few hours after midnight to catch an hour or so of sleep on a tan Martha Stewart chaise lounge next to the customer service desk. But firefighters who come by the store in the middle of the night know they can ring the bell and Morones will let them in.

Morones, 37, hasn't seen his wife of 13 years or their 3 1/2-year-old son since the weekend--they, too, fled the town. Rather than return home for his own necessities, Morones shopped at Kmart--and paid for his items.

He doesn't like to explain why he has kept his store open because "it's too corny."

"I have to keep it open for these guys. I know how I'd feel if I needed something," he said. "And now I've made a lot of friends."

A firefighter from Flagstaff who frequents the store said Morones is mentioned at briefings as if he's part of the team.

"It's absolutely wonderful, the support this gentleman has given us," said Don Howard, who stopped by again Thursday for some binoculars and windshield cleaner.

The line of firefighters wearing their banana yellow fire-retardant shirts--intermixed with police and other emergency personnel--can wind 200 people long during peak hours, the twice-a-day shift changes. It gets crowded again at 2 a.m. when the National Guard crews change.

Among the more sought-after items: flashlights, suntan lotion, towels, board games and sports balls. A firefighter Thursday was returning a malfunctioning CD player; Morones cheerfully gave him his refund.

"A whole bunch of guys the other day all bought squirt guns," Morones said. "I said, 'Please tell me you're not using those to put out the fire.' "

For days, Morones didn't know the fate of his own home on the west side of town, which was threatened by the fire. When he shared his anxiety with some police officers, they drove over to check on the place and returned with good news.

Some grateful customers give Morones the shirts off their backs. Above the cash register, 31 shirts hang, emblazoned with the logos of fire and police departments from San Bernardino to Montana to New York. There's also a National Guard camouflage jacket. The store's snack bar is closed--Morones can't do it all--but he has befriended Maricopa County sheriff's deputies who came here from Phoenix to help, and now they bring him three meals a day.

"They're my good friends," he said.

Morones also is making friends at Kmart headquarters in Detroit.

"This is the mark of an everyday hero," said President Julian Day, who recently took over the company after the Kmart chain filed for bankruptcy protection. "Rob is a very humble guy, who really doesn't ask a whole lot of you when you talk to him. He doesn't realize we're blown away by the example he's setting for everyone in the company, and for helping the community."

The calls were nice, Morones said, because he is a big supporter of the company's new management. "But we all put our pants on one leg at a time. I respect him as a person and for his position, but what really means a lot to me is when firefighters shake my hand."

His supervisors say they worry for Morones' health--and are amazed by his productivity. Morones is leading the district for the number of items that pass through his cash register per minute--21.6, said Ernie Caringola, a Kmart district manager. During down time, Morones stocks the shelves with goods sent here in anticipation of a run on merchandise as the fire approached.

The 78,000-square-foot store, stocked with $16 million in merchandise, normally is staffed by more than 35 people. Finally, on Thursday morning, Morones relented and allowed one of his clerks to join him for the day because the threat to Show Low had lessened.

"All of us wanted to come back to help Rick," said Carol Deacon, a 10-year veteran of the store. "But he only allowed one of us back."

Morones, who moved here four years ago from Tucson, said he doesn't want to put anyone else at risk. He has embraced Show Low as his new home and became the store manager 1 1/2 years ago.

"I like small communities," he said. "You see the same people all the time, and they're people you can count on."

His calmness is contagious as restless firefighters grow quiet and patient in lines that sometimes bring three-hour waits.

As he finishes each transaction, Morones asks the customer his name, and shakes his hand.

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