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Fire destroys popular steakhouse

ALTON, IL -- Piles of waterlogged paper towels and melted salt and pepper shakers were scattered near the doors to the Golden Corral Family Steakhouse several hours after the building suffered severe damage from a fire early Tuesday morning.

The blaze, which authorities are calling "suspicious," occurred only six days after a less damaging fire in a clothes dryer, which closed the popular Alton eatery at 2723 Corner Court.

A cause and origin team comprised of Assistant Chief Tim Spaulding of the Alton Fire Department and detective John Franke of the Alton Police Department is trying to determine how the fire started.

Spaulding estimated the building could have been worth $500,000, with another $150,000 to $250,000 in loss of contents, although those numbers are subject to change.

Hours after firefighters extinguished the most recent fire, the pungent stench of smoke intermingled with the smells of a sludge of mayonnaise, cooking oil, spaghetti sauce, flour, chicken batter and condiments that melted out of their plastic jugs in the intense heat and oozed onto the restaurant floor.

"It almost sucked my boots off my feet, the muck was so deep," Spaulding said. "And when it was mixed with water from the firehoses, it was like glue. It smelled like a Dumpster."

It took firefighters about 90 minutes to extinguish the fire and four or five "hot spots," or small fires hidden in the space between the two parallel roofs, which they located with a thermal imaging camera.

After the fire, firefighters had to drag away a trailer parked behind the building to make way for a backhoe. The trailer was to be used to haul away restaurant furniture so it could be cleaned of the smoke odor from the Dec. 4 fire.

A worker from the Alton Building and Zoning Department then arrived with the heavy equipment to scoop the slippery mass of liquid, toilet paper, paper towels and melted containers from the burned building.

"Pretty much everything they were going to use, all of their supplies, were piled in that area by the door," Assistant Fire Chief Gary Claxton said. "We used the backhoe because all of that stuff was wet, and instead of using the men, I thought that would be a much better plan."

Claxton said the backhoe removed approximately 3 to 5 tons of soaked materials from the doorway where the fire is thought to have originated.

Bags of oil also were stored in that area, but Claxton said they never posed a specific danger to the firefighters.

Spaulding said the new food and paper goods had been stacked up in preparation for the planned reopening of the restaurant on Thursday, and he suspects that is where the fire started. The goods were in the same, south storage room but in a different area than where the Dec. 4 fire started.

The process of recovering from the first fire also hindered firefighters in their attempt to enter the restaurant during Tuesday’s fire, Spaulding said. Restaurant workers had piled up the chairs and tables slated for cleaning in front of one of the back doors. Firefighters had forced open the door, but the furniture blocked them from entering the building.

They then had to resort to forcing open another of the three doors on the south side of the restaurant to gain entry.

"They found a big fire in the products they had stacked up, which they had bought to replace those lost in the first fire," Spaulding said.

An unidentified person had reported the fire at 1:55 a.m. Firefighters arriving on the scene could see smoke through the windows and determined, "the hottest part of the building was in the southeast corner," Spaulding said.

The owners of the restaurant arrived at the scene to watch firefighters work to extinguish the fire.

Keith Jacquin, one of the three owners, said he was asleep at the time of Tuesday’s fire and was notified by a friend who happened to drive by the restaurant and see the fire.

"I got a phone call from a friend who was driving by it, and he told me that the restaurant was on fire, and then I just got up," Jacquin said. "I guess we’ll have to talk to the insurance man now to see what happens next."

With a sign looming in the background that reads: "Closed due to fire. Will reopen on Thursday, Dec. 12," Jacquin had said last week that he had hoped to reopen the restaurant last Saturday.

He said he was not sure when the restaurant would open again, but he would have a better idea after the owners are able to analyze the damage.

"This was our family’s restaurant," Jacquin said. "I guess at this point, we’ll just have to see what it will take to rebuild it. It’s really something, though."

Claxton said two pumper trucks, an aerial tower truck and two rescue units were sent to the scene with 11 firefighters. When another fire call came in at 3:25 a.m. at a church and adjacent parsonage, three firefighters, including Claxton, left Golden Corral to go to the fire in the 500 block of Mitchell Street. That crew took one of the tower trucks from the restaurant scene.

A fire captain remained in charge of the restaurant scene.

An assistant chief had notified Alton Fire Chief Tom Chappell, who went to the Don Twichell Memorial Fire Station No. 1 and called in Spaulding, Assistant Chief David Eckhouse and five off-duty firefighters. Spaulding then went to command the proceedings at Golden Corral, and Eckhouse served as "line chief" in charge of any other calls that might have come in.

Tired fire officials admitted the back-to-back fires stretched their manpower in the early morning hours.

"It was almost like having a second alarm," Spaulding said.