COLUMBIA — Even a smoldering storefront could not keep customers away from Ernie's Cafe & Steak House for long.
The Columbia Fire Department responded to reports of the smell of smoke at Ernie's on Sunday morning. Firefighters discovered that wood behind one of the restaurant's neon signs was smoldering.
The 911 call was recorded at 7:53 a.m, according to the city's website.
Ernie's owner Tom Spurling said the cafe was closed for less than an hour.
Firefighters cleared the cafe of its customers and were able to find the source of the smoke, Spurling said. The restaurant was open again to customers around 9 a.m.
Spurling said he could not smell the smoke in the cafe, but the tenant living in the apartment above the cafe could. When Spurling went upstairs, he said, they could smell the smoke and just barely see it. At that point, he immediately called 911.
Initially, fire department authorities were unable to find the source of the smoke, Assistant Fire Marshal Lisa Todd said. When they climbed onto the roof and the awning of the cafe, they discovered charred wood behind one of the restaurant's neon signs.
Spurling said the wiring in the sign on the front of the building had become bare. It was making contact with a screw and a 2-by-4-inch piece of lumber, causing the lumber to start smoldering.
Firefighters were able to cut into the building and isolate the lumber, Spurling said.
They had to turn off the neon sign, remove the facade of the building and remove the charred wood, Todd said. There was no fire, and no water was used.
"If we hadn't caught that when we did, the fire department said it would have been an open flame within hours," Spurling said.
The damage to the restaurant was minimal. Todd said the fire marshal estimates the damage to be about $8,000.
Spurling said he is unsure whether or not he will replace the 17-year-old neon sign, but he will fix the spot on the building.
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