“We couldn’t find Barb.”
Ann Minns’ voice broke as she described the minutes after residents of Whitfield, in north-east Victoria, woke yesterday to the sounds of the town’s 110-year-old general store burning and the death of its new owner Barb Sartori.
Mrs Sartori was one of the Three Nonnas of the popular cooking sessions held at the Sartori property near Whitfield, as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
FRIENDS REMEMBER: 'Barb knew when people were in need'
Mrs Sartori had planned to turn the store into a regional produce store showcasing great food.
The sound of windows popping and fire trucks woke the residents before 4am.
They could do nothing but watch the fire.
“The blaze was intense,” Mrs Minns said.
The timber store was reduced to blackened rubble in minutes with a chimney, ice freezer and phone box the only recognisable structures beyond the police tape.
Detective Sen-Constable Neal Thompson said he had ruled out foul play.
The extent of the damage made it difficult for the arson squad and forensic chemists to find how the fire started.
“We’re still clearing the site,” Sen-Constable Thompson said.
The body of Mrs Sartori, 52, was found at the scene, but it is still to be identified.
She was last seen at the store at 9pm on Sunday.
Ken Sims, who lives two doors from the store, said a loud bang had woken him at 3.45am. He saw the orange flashes of truck blinkers and went outside.
“Holy moly, the flames were coming up around the eaves,” Mr Sims said.
“Fifteen to 20 minutes and it was down to ground level.
“She was one of the leaders of the community.
“We’re just numb — just walking around in circles.”
Clive Grimshaw, who lives across from the store, spent most of the day in his front yard, watching the grim scene.
“It’s upsetting,” Mr Grimshaw said. “I didn’t know where she was.”
A Sartori family friend, Arnold Pizzini, 89, had his head in his hands.
He had seen Mrs Sartori at 6pm when he dropped into the store to buy eggs.
Mr Pizzini said she had already brought a fresh atmosphere to the store.
“She loved people, she loved doing things for the locals,” he said.
Det Sen-Constable Thompson said police and investigators may further sift through the rubble.
Whitfield’s mail and papers will be delivered to neighbouring Cheshunt, five kilometres away.