SAN ANTONIO — The fruit of Carolyn Tillman’s labor was nearly wiped out in a strip mall fire two years ago. Her days as a business owner had been good to her.

“Until the day of the disaster. That was devastating,” She said.

Tillman had been at 6796 Ingram Rd. for more than 20 years. She was proudly the longest-occupying tenant in the strip mall, until May 18, 2017.

The 59-year-old remembers lounging inside her business after finishing off her final client that night. She went home to a disturbing phone call about a fire at her business.

“I didn’t remember leaving anything plugged in or on,” she recalled.

The phone calls kept coming. Tillman rushed to the store, where chaos and a four-alarm roared into the air.

“It was just terrible,” Tillman said.

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San Antonio Firefighters responded to the call at the 86,000-square foot strip mall. Ladder 35 led the charge to do battle with the massive fire. But the conditions at the scene were not ideal.

The four-alarm firm was fueled by winds that trapped firefighters inside of the building. Battalion commanders ordered firefighters out of the structure before a Mayday call went out.

The fire killed 31-year-old Scott Deem, severely injured Firefighter Brad Phipps and caused minor injuries to Firefighter Robert Vasquez, who was performing a rescue of one of his partners. 

Investigators connected the fire to Emond Johnson, who was later arrested on an arson charges. The criminal charge has since been upgraded to murder. 

He is scheduled to be in court for the charge in June.

“This man stood next to me,” Tillman said. “Talking to me as if he had no idea.”

Tillman said Johnson kept asking, "How could something like this happen?"

According to the authorities, the deadly fire happened because Johnson, a gym owner, was having financial difficulties.

“It was a loss that didn’t have to happen,” Tillman said.

The 59-year-old business owner credits God with keeping her on a good path. She was out of her normal salon spot for a year. In fact, the space remains unoccupied.

“And for all of us who got displace and lost business and everything—it just hurts because we can never get that back,” Tillman said.

She was able salvage a desk for her lobby and salon chairs for her new suite. Carolyn’s Hair Salon is in the same strip mall and Tillman says she’ll be there until retirement.

Meantime, SAFD continues to serve the public and improve from the mistakes made during the fire that killed Deem.

They are holding a Hero Workout Day “Scotty” for Deem at their training academy. Deem loved to train. The repetition of the exercises and time to execute them are symbolic of the night he was killed.