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Pedestrians gather before Chattanooga emergency personnel arrive at the scene where the front of the Cheeburger Cheeburger building collapsed at the intersection of Aquarium Way and Market Street on Wednesday just before 2 p.m. in downtown Chattanooga.

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Cheeburger Cheeburger collapse

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Charlie and Renee Eich stand Thursday morning near the crumbled, brick walls of their restaurant franchise, Cheeburger Cheeburger, at 138 Market St.

Charlie Eich, who watched the front brick walls of his Cheeburger Cheeburger restaurant come tumbling down Wednesday afternoon, has a message for George Walls Jr., the owner of the historic building in the heart of downtown Chattanooga.

"He's living on Fantasy Island if he thinks it's the tenant's responsibility," Eich said Thursday morning, while surveying the damage to the 141-year-old building at 138 Market St. "I don't think that he's in touch with reality."

That was in response to Walls' son, Kenneth George Walls, who said Wednesday it was Cheeburger Cheeburger's responsibility to fix the building's exterior walls, and that Eich had "been served notice to do that."

"It's going to be in court," Walls said Wednesday. "I've been after them to fix it in every possible way. And they told me, 'We're not going to do anything.'"

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No one was hurt when the brick walls tumbled down in a few seconds, which Charlie Eich captured on his cellphone. The Eichs didn't open the restaurant Wednesday because the walls were shifting and cracking. They even put up yellow caution tape to keep people from walking too close.

Eich said Thursday the Wallses had initially said they were going to fix the building. But then, about three or four weeks ago, Eich said he was "flabbergasted" to receive a certified letter from George Walls Jr. — with a smiley face drawn on the envelope — informing Eich that any repair would be Eich's responsibility.

While Eich strongly disagreed, he and his wife Renee decided to try to proceed with what they estimate would have been $75,000 to $100,000 in work.

"We were going to fix it so we wouldn't lose our livelihoods," Charlie said. "And then sue [Walls] to recuperate our money."

They have hired an attorney who has successfully sued Walls before — Mark Litchford, of the Chattanooga legal firm Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison.

Litchford represented K.K. Sidella, the owner of the now-defunct Genghis Grill that was next door to Cheeburger Cheeburger, who won a judgment of $331,490, plus attorneys' fees, after Sidella argued Walls had hurt his business by improperly towing customers' vehicles.

Walls only paid the Genghis Grill judgment after Hamilton County Chancery Court threatened to auction the 138 Market St. property on Oct. 26 of last year.

City inspector issued notice

Chattanooga Chief Building Inspector Cary Morris issued a notice of correction March 24 after inspecting the Cheeburger Cheeburger building, which gave 15 days to start repairs — or the next enforcement could have been condemning the building, city spokeswoman Marissa Bell said.

"As I understand it from [Morris], the property condition deteriorated rapidly from Friday to early this week when the Cheeburger owner decided to close early for the safety of all," Bell said via email.

Ann Gray, the executive director of Cornerstones, a nonprofit historic preservation organization, was sad to see the building crumble.

"We're just sorry to see another historic property in dire straits. We have very few left in the downtown area," Gray said. "There's just a handful of buildings in those first four blocks on Market Street that are historic buildings."

While the Eichs don't like their landlord, they would like their restaurant, which is one of 38 in a franchise, to stay in the same location it's been since 1998. And they've still got 16 years on the lease.

"I would want to stay here, if we could," Renee Eich said.

They're not sure if they'll be able to stay, though. They also didn't know Thursday how much their insurance would cover. The Eichs' restaurant employs 24 people, and they hope that anyone who's looking for workers will reach out with job offers via Cheeburger Cheeburger's Facebook page.

While the Eichs said Wednesday was one of the worst days of their lives, they also said they were grateful for peoples' help and concern, including from firefighters, police, emergency responders, city officials — and the owners of Puckett's Chattanooga, a restaurant across the street from Cheeburger Cheeburger, where the Eichs invited their employees Thursday morning to have breakfast.

Puckett's surprised the Eichs by picking up the check.

"We saw the best of people," Charlie Eich said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or on Twitter @meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.

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