A fire that destroyed The Olde Heidelberg restaurant Monday was preceded by a series of apparent electrical problems, according to interviews with workers and customers, but Columbia fire officials say it might take several days to determine the true cause of the blaze.
Don’t worry, however. The ’Berg will be back.
“We will rebuild,” said Richard Walls Jr., whose father, Dick Walls, owns the 40-year-old restaurant that became a popular campus dining and drinking spot. “We’ll try and preserve as much of the front as we can. And we’ll definitely try to maintain the charm and continue the tradition of The Heidelberg. ... We’ll keep The Heidelberg alive.”
Dick Walls was out of town Monday. His son, however, said the family hopes to begin rebuilding the restaurant at 410 S. Ninth St. as soon as possible.
Patrons and employees of the restaurant who were interviewed by the Missourian on Monday mentioned problems with air conditioning and with kitchen ventilation hoods over the grills, but Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said discovering the true cause of the fire might take some time.
“After speaking with the owners today, there may have been issues with the electrical service,” Sapp said. “But we really haven’t had an opportunity to delve into that much.”
The fire was reported shortly before 1:30 a.m. Monday by a caller who had seen smoke pouring from the building.
“The fire had a good start on us, and anytime that happens it’s going to be a little nasty to fight,” Sapp said.
About 70 firefighters and 20 fire trucks from the Columbia Fire Department and the Boone County Fire Protection District fought the three-alarm blaze, Sapp said. After 20 minutes of futile firefighting inside the restaurant, crews were ordered out of the building to protect the neighboring businesses, Osama’s Coffee Zone and Domino’s Pizza, Sapp said.
Firefighters were safely out of the building by the time the roof collapsed around 3:30 a.m. No one was hurt in the fire, which was extinguished by 4 a.m.
Police evacuated residents of adjacent apartment buildings at 400 and 402 S. Ninth St. and suggested they take shelter in MU’s Middlebush Hall. Some tenants spent about two hours atop the Hitt Street parking garage while a crowd of bystanders stood in the street and watched the restaurant burn.
Red Cross volunteers provided water and food to firefighters.
Assistant Fire Marshall Amy Barrett said the fire barely touched Osama’s, which was spared by a concrete firewall erected during a renovation of the coffee shop three years ago. Osama’s, which sustained some water damage, probablywill remain closed a few more days, Sapp said.
Sapp said $250,000 would be a conservative estimate of damage to the Heidelberg. The three-alarm fire was one of the biggest since Mom’s Arcade at 413 E. Broadway burned down in September 1997, he added.
“Anytime we can save the businesses on both sides, we consider it a successful knockdown,” Sapp said. “Anytime you fight a fire that doesn’t burn the whole block down, you’re doing well.”
MU junior Anthony Fleig, 21, ate dinner at the Heidelberg around 6:30 p.m. Sunday. He said he could smell and see smoke in the main dining room then.
“It wasn’t really thick, but you could smell it and you could see it,” he said.
During his meal, a family walked into the main dining room and was told by a waitress that the kitchen had stopped serving food early, Fleig said.
Charlie Hamill, the bartender on duty from 5 p.m. until closing, said he was one of the last three people to leave the building at about 12:45 a.m.
“There was no smoke or smoke smell in the building when we left,” he said.
Hamill said the kitchen stopped serving food for about two hours because the ventilation hood above the kitchen grill was not working. The air conditioning had also failed, he said. The kitchen chose not to operate the grill after the vents came back on about 7:30 p.m., he said.
“We didn’t use the grill because they didn’t want extra smoke,” Hamill said.
Sapp said fire and insurance investigators returned to the restaurant about noon Monday but were unable to start a thorough investigation because they could not get large equipment inside to collect debris. Construction crews boarded up the windows of the restaurant and roped off sidewalks on Ninth Street. The investigation was to resume at 8 a.m. this morning, Sapp said.
Barrett said some equipment inside the building was too large to remove without an industrial crane. The north and south walls were too unstable Monday to enter the building safely, she added.
Domino’s employees spent much of Monday sanitizing the store and discarding food and supplies, said Brian Brown, a supervisor for Domino’s in Columbia and Fulton. “We had to throw out everything,” he said. “Every bit of food in the store went in the trash can.”
Brown said Domino’s would reopen in time for lunch today.
Columbia fire marshals issued two citations during an April 29 inspection of the Heidelberg: one for inadequate access to a fire extinguisher and the other for problems with emergency and exit lighting. Records show both problems were resolved by June 4.
MU senior Lara Langeneckert, 20, started working as a server at the Heidelberg in May. She walked by the restaurant Monday morning to see the destruction.
“I couldn’t believe that it was gone,” she said. “It was completely gone. It’s really sad.”