Fire burns Big Pine restaurant
Rotary, chamber lament the loss of meeting space

By Christie Phillips

A devastating fire that broke out at Montego Bay Food & Spirits on Big Pine Key at 9:30 Tuesday morning burned several civic organizations on its way to ruining the popular local restaurant.

"Thereís a storage room upstairs in the back of the restaurant where we stored all our stuff," sighed Jim Cameron, president of the Big Pine Rotary. "We lost everything there. Some of the things were irreplaceable, like exchange banners weíve received from Rotaries around the world. They were all there.

"And we had lots of new equipment up there, like a new TV and VCR. And there was also a beautiful wooden podium our past president made for us."

"We have our dinners there," lamented Carol Fisher, executive director of the Big Pine Chamber of Commerce. "I donít know where weíre going to have our July 22 dinner. We might just be having it here and Iíll be cooking spaghetti and meatballs.

"I donít mind that," Fisher added. "But we just donít know. It all happened so quick."

The fire caused "significant damage," said Monroe County Fire Marshal Bill Surina. "Itís still under investigation, so I canít give the details, and I canít give fire loss damages yet. It was a very difficult fire."

Surina said the fire was under control by 10:30, and put out an hour later.

"We had two dozen firefighters out with seven apparatus," Surina added. "There were firefighters from Marathon, Big Pine, Sugarloaf and Big Coppitt, both professional and volunteer firefighters. It was a great response effort."

Local civic groups are more concerned about restaurant owner Ed Whittaker than the material losses.

"Ed is a good friend to all of us in Big Pine," Cameron said. "Heís a big contributor to the community. The restaurant was a gathering place for many folks on the island. Hopefully heíll be able to rebuild."

The fire caused severe damage to the two-story structure.

"I went by there, and itís pretty devastating," Cameron admitted. "Most of the second floor is gone, and a portion dropped down onto the first floor dining room. The kitchen may be OK, but I donít know."

Cameron said that luckily, not all was lost for the Rotary.

"Our most crucial records are not there, theyíre stored elsewhere. [Still], weíre sad about it. We had our meetings there. Weíll have our meeting this week, and maybe for a while, at the Big Pine Methodist Church. I donít know what weíll serve to eat, I guess this week weíll have a pizza party."

"We feel really bad about it," Fisher said. "Ed Whittaker has always been very supportive of the community. Even personally, anytime anyone needed anything, Ed was there. Iím going to call him and tell him if thereís anything the chamber can do, weíd love to help."

At press time, it was still unknown what caused the fire, which apparently started in the back of the restaurant. Whittaker could not be reached for comment.