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Car crashes into Malt Shop, leaves landmark in shambles

Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat — Malt Shop employee Annette Johnson said she wasn’t going to tear up when she talked about Thursday night’s crash, but when she started thinking about what could have happened if the shop had been open, she could not help but get emotional with shop owner Gloria Neames.

NATCHEZ — Malt Shop owner Gloria Neames choked back tears Friday morning as she looked down at the splintered remains of the picnic table that sat in front of the building for decades.

Hundreds of people had etched their names into the wood — a permanent profession of their love for boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, family, and ultimately, for the Malt Shop itself.

“That picnic bench had been there for 65 years. That’s the part that always makes me cry,” Neames said as she looked down at the pieces she was able to salvage. “I saved the planks so we can try to put them on another table.”

The picnic table was only the first part of the popular shake shop to go at 11:25 p.m. Thursday, when Dwight Anthony Berry Jr., 20, 1 Elbow Lane, crashed his car into the building, destroying its exterior and causing extensive damage to the front part of the interior.

Submitted photo — Dwight Anthony Berry Jr. drove his car into the front of the restaurant.

Natchez Police Chief Mike Mullins said Berry was driving his 1996 Cadillac Fleetwood on Martin Luther King Jr. Street headed toward the Malt Shop, while a police car was coming from the opposite direction. Berry reportedly swerved into the officer’s lane, and the officer made a U-turn to stop him.

Berry accelerated, Mullins said, in an apparent effort to evade arrest, but when he tried to make a turn, he ended up hitting the Malt Shop.

Police chased him on foot and arrested him near Braden School, the administrative building for the public schools, Mullins said.

The damage was significant, but the restaurant was not destroyed.

Neames said she will absolutely rebuild, and she hopes to be back in business in a day or two.

“When I first surveyed it, I thought it would be weeks and weeks,” she said. “Now they’re saying it can be stabilized in just a day or so.”

Though the building will be nowhere near what it was just Thursday morning, Neames said she should be able to operate out of the front right window and the drive-thru window as soon the damaged areas, are boarded up.

By approximately 1 p.m. Friday, boards were already standing where the walls used to be.

But since the slushie machine was thrown from the building and landed nearly 100 feet away, Neames said it might be a little longer before people can get their favorite menu items.

For decades, generations of families carved their names and initials into the wood of the picnic table that was destroyed in the crash.

As far as ice cream goes, though, they’ll have a few choices.

“We may just have to do chocolate, vanilla and strawberry for now,” she said.

Though most of her appliances were destroyed — along with a safe that was bolted into the shop’s front wall — Neames said she’d just have to work around the damage.

Clusters of dedicated employees sat around the Malt Shop Friday morning.

Lydia Hill, 21, has worked at the Malt Shop since 2007, she said.

Friday was supposed to be her last day.

Hill said she’s moving to Minnesota to be closer to her family and create better opportunities for herself.

“I was supposed to work all day, and I expected to see everyone I know,” she said. “I’m leaving, and now this.”

Her coworker told her what happened before she got to the Malt Shop, Hill said, but she still couldn’t believe what she saw.

“It looked terrible,” she said. “It looked like something off of a movie scene.”

For 30 years, 48-year-old Annette Johnson has gone to work every day at the Malt Shop.

“You can’t feel angry (it happened), because nobody was hurt,” she said. “There’s no reason to be angry at all.

“We’re all standing here.”

She’s not worried about what comes next or where she’s going to be working if the Malt Shop is unable to open again soon.

“I’m just going to keep on living and counting my blessings,” she said.

Neames said after she arrived at the building Thursday night, she found herself unable to leave it.

“I stayed down here all night,” she said. “I didn’t want to just leave it.”

Now, though, Neames said she’s just going to stay positive and trust that things will work out.

“There have just been a lot of tears,” she said. “We all just want to build it back as soon as possible.

“We want to build more memories.”