A pre-dawn fire wreaked an estimated $400,000 damage on a local institution, De Angelo's Restaurant, according to Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten.
There were no injuries except one firefighter who stepped on a nail and was treated and released for a puncture wound.
Cause of the fire hasn't been determined, Mitten said, and remains under investigation. The Main Street restaurant had closed around 1 a.m. Saturday.
The first call, a burglar alarm, came at 6:08 a.m., the chief said. "The police department arrived and saw smoke coming out of the building," Mitten added. Eventually, 23 firefighters, including staff officers and the chief himself, four engines and one ladder truck arrived on the scene. Flames were blazing out of the eight or nine air conditioners on the restaurant's roof.
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Firefighters put out the fire in about 40 minutes, Mitten said. Standing outside the restaurant around noon Saturday, with one block of Main Street closed off by yellow emergency tape, Mitten pointed inside the front door. "You can see the smoke level is clear to the lower area," he said. "Most everything inside is covered with soot and smoke."
He said there was "significant" fire damage in the middle of the restaurant. "It's going to need a major remodeling," he added.
Owner Vinnie De Angelo had been inside earlier, the chief said, retrieving documents and other paperwork to notify customers with reservations and those who had made catering arrangements.
Kerry Brooke, who's been a server at De Angelo's for 14 years, said Friday night was "very busy -- both dining rooms and the bistro were hopping. Everybody was happy."
Daniel Thuener, a cook for five years, said he and other kitchen staff left around 11:30 p.m. Friday, after last call. "It just smelled like a kitchen," he said. "We had cleaned everything out."
Brooke, Thuener and several other restaurant employees lingered on the sidewalk Saturday as firefighters trooped in and out of the restaurant. Three firefighters were examining an electrical box on the outside of the building.
Brooke said De Angelo had been there earlier Saturday morning. "He was mostly concerned about his employees," she said.
Scott Hawkins, bar manager of De Angelo's, woke up early Saturday morning to begin preparations for De Angelo's annual fig festival.
A frantic call came from Richard Mennelly, restaurant manager, as he was getting ready.
"Man, you better get down here," Mennelly said.
He arrived at 6:15 a.m. and saw flames coming out of the roof and heavy smoke pouring from every opening. Fire crews were already on site working to combat the situation.
"It's pretty well-intact structurally," Mitten said. "A few minutes more and it would have been a different story. When I arrived on the scene, I anticipated a much more significant fire."
Mitten thinks his crew's immediate decision to scale the roof and punch smoke holes is how they were able to get it under control so quickly.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, he said.
"As soon as we walked out of the station we could see the smoke in the sky" Mitten said.
Restaurant employees began arriving on the heels of the first fire crews and huddled around each other staring in horror as the fire was quickly contained.
As the hours passed, other Main Street business owners came out intermittently, standing with the De Angelo's employees, as did many of the loyal customers they have served since opening in 1995.
"One of the regulars heard it on the news but said she couldn't believe it," Hawkins said. "She got in her car and came over to see for herself."
Wayne Hague of Merced, a regular customer of De Angelo's, who came out to wait with the staff, said "It's devastating because of the close relationships they have with their customers. Vinnie is there every day. It's a very well-loved place. I go there a few times a week and I know all the staff."
As the last of the fire crews packed out Saturday afternoon, De Angelo had nothing much to say.
"I'm just trying to absorb it all," he said as Hawkins walked by with a soot covered book folded over his arms.
"Reservations?" Hawkins said in a monotone voice.
"Huh?" De Angelo said. "Oh yea, reservations -- we gotta call everybody and let them know."
De Angelo's employs a staff of 30, most of whom have been with the business for five years or more.
"We really are like a family here." Thuener said. "I think I'll be in shock for awhile. But I'm pretty sure we'll all be down here cleaning up as soon as we can."
Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lisa James can be reached at (209) 385-2461 or email@example.com.