Investigation Underway After Fire in Historic Bluffton Building

By Scott Sarvay
By Jeff Neumeyer
By Megan Trent
By Corinne Rose
By Maureen Mespell

November 15, 2011 Updated Nov 16, 2011 at 12:05 AM EDT

BLUFFTON, Ind. (Indiana’s NewsCenter) - By 5:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, power had been restored, and most of west Market Street was back open for business. However, the damage to Hideaway Cocktail Lounge and Bar was extensive.

"We know that the building is a total loss now - at least the Hideaway building. The other two we're still looking at," says Bluffton Mayor Ted Ellis.

Just containing the fire to where it started, Hideaway, was a challenge in the downtown setting.

Bluffton Fire Chief Robert Plummer says, "The vehicles in front of the building caused us a challenge until we could get those moved."

In early 20th century buildings like these, building materials also pose threats.

"They have timbers in the floors, different things like that burned pretty well and pretty hot," adds Chief Plummer.

He says shared walls present the danger of a "domino" collapse, but also some benefits. "In this particular case, they're thick enough that it gave us some fire protection to keep the extension from moving from one building to the next."

It may take some time to determine the exact cause of the fire and how much of the structure can be saved. Mayor Ellis says, "We've got three insurance companies, the fire marshal, and our fire inspector, who all need to agree on what's going to be done before we do it."

Donna Deschaine and her husband opened Leisure Time, connected to Hideaway, less than two months ago.

"We originally thought it was just smoke damage, but we have extensive damage to the third floor, on the roof, and I think the elevator is probably toast," says Deschaine.

She says the building is covered by insurance, but her smoke-damaged inventory of gifts, antiques, books, children's play equipment, and cafe equipment isn't.

"It's a problem, but it's not going to stop anything. We're still going to make plans to move forward. It's going to be awhile before we open up again, but hopefully we'll be even better when we open up a second time."

Fortunately, there were no injuries outside of one Ossian firefighter who was treated for minor exhaustion. However, there are a few families who lived in upstairs apartments that lost everything.

Mayor Ellis says, "So often we find that the response is so overwhelming that we really have more resource than we really need."

"Everybody has been cooperative and very, very helpful," adds Deschaine. "The hugs really do help."

Like several other fires in recent years, Mayor Ellis hopes the businesses will rebound and buildings will be rebuilt and come out better on the other side. "Fire can purify things, especially if we can use it, learn from it. People are resilient, especially in Bluffton."

Deschaine agrees. It wasn't too long ago she lived in Alaska, pointed to a map, and made the move to Bluffton to open a business during her retirement. She doesn't plan to turn back now. "This is a set back. It's not a stop."
Bluffton Mayor Ted Ellis spoke with Indiana’s NewsCenter Tuesday morning and said that a few areas of downtown have had their power restored and that the future of the building will be decided by the insurance companies and structural engineers.
Flames shot high into the air Monday morning from a group of historic buildings in Bluffton after fire erupted in a restaurant and lounge.

By the middle of the day, the scene calmed down considerably.

Crews from a half dozen fire departments converged on a downtown block near the Wells County Courthouse, getting the fire under control in a couple of hours.

Around 9 a.m. is when the blaze really got rolling, starting somewhere inside the Hideaway Cocktail Lounge.

The owners of the Leisure Time business, a combination restaurant and retail store, were next door at the time and smelled smoke.

Donna Deschaine/Business Owner: " I told my husband you better run downstairs and see if there's a fire downstairs, and he went downstairs and there wasn't anything, and then the smoke started coming through the wall, and we came outside and it was just pluming out of the Hideaway's second floor."

There were apartments above the Hideaway. Some of those residents lost everything.

Megan Humphrey/Home Destroyed by Fire: " It's pretty much gone. Me and my kids just moved in Thursday night up there. I'm so confused right now. I don't know where to start. I'm just happy that the kids are okay, and I have a job, so there's a start somewhere."

Carlos Rowe/Apartment Lost to Fire: " My mom was up there asleep, she's deaf, couldn't hear. I guess somebody went up there and got her out, I don't know. They won't let me up there, I don't know what's going on."

There's a complicating factor in this fire. The buildings involved are quite old. The historic area of downtown Bluffton where the fire occurred has buildings that were constructed between 1890 and 1910.

Many are in poor condition, making combating the fire a challenge for emergency crews. Some windows had to be knocked in, and entry/exit points to the building were limited.

Over the years, the area has certainly seen its fair share of devastating fires. It was nearly two years ago that a building only a block down the street from today's fire saw its own blaze. Fortunately, that building was able to be saved, but that fate might not be the same this time around.

This brick, historic, three story building that caught fire was built in 1900. Hideaway has been in that location since 1960, and before that it was a title insurance company.

Now more than a century old, there are a lot of questions about the safety of the structure following the fire, smoke, and water damage.

Crews are busy determining what can be saved, restored, and what will need to be torn down. Insurance companies and structural engineers will have a big part in that decision.

Demolition to the back of Hideaway has already commenced, but it's not yet clear what other steps will need to be taken over the next several days.

For Bluffton, it's more than just money, and more than just a building. It's a part of the history of this community. Bluffton Mayor Ted Ellis says, "We have the option, in cases where the damage is substantive, of ordering that the building either be torn down or fixed up. So, we can enforce that the buildings won't stay in a damaged condition forever, but we usually rely on cooperation with the owner to get that done."

The problem could extend to neighboring buildings as well, because they are connected through a shared wall. If one is damaged, it often bleeds over to the other connected units.

Mayor Ellis says, "The domino effect can happen if there's structural damage. We don't know if that's the case now, but it very likely could be. These were built in the early 1900s and they've seen their better days in a lot of cases, but we sure want to keep them around."

Now the town of Bluffton must play the waiting game. While some of the questions will be answered in a matter of hours and days, others will take much more time - especially for the families who must now find a new place to call home because of this fire.

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