EARLY MORNING FIRE: Huntís Oyster Bar may take months to reopen.

Flames ravage popular eatery

By David Angier News Herald Writer 747-5077 /

A small ray of hope for a quick reopening pierced a thick veil of smoke over Huntís Oyster Bar Tuesday in St. Andrews.

Just two hours after firefighters doused a blaze that ravaged the Beck Avenue landmarkís kitchen, Randy Hunt, friends and family were inside clearing the debris.

"Itís pretty sad in there," Hunt said.

As a sign of things to come, however, two people had taken a break from the cleanup to sit at the corner of the bar nearest the door and have a Budweiser.

Behind them, the walls were blackened with soot and the smell of charred wood hung in the air.

Hunt said it would take two months at the most to refurbish the kitchen and reopen the popular seafood restaurant.

Theodore Van Wagner said he was finishing up a carpet project when he smelled smoke coming from the kitchen about 7:45 a.m. He was the only person inside the restaurant, and when he went to investigate he found the kitchen already in flames.

"The smoke was too bad," Van Wagner said. "I couldnít do anything."
Van Wagner said he held his breath long enough to bolt out the front door. He said he called 911, but neighbors already had seen smoke coming from a vent and had called for help.

Firefighters arrived at the scene two minutes after being dispatched and had the fire under control in about 40 minutes. No one was injured working the fire. Panama City Fire Lt. Roman Olek said thick black smoke was billowing from the front and back when his crew arrived on scene. Van Wagner told them where heíd seen the fire, Olek said, and they made their way to the back door.

Olek and two firefighters entered the kitchen and found it too hot to remain there. "There was fire all around the range and the walls," Olek said. "Itíd already got up to the attic." Olek said they put a fan in the kitchen to drive out some of the heat, then went in again. The fire broke through the roof over the kitchen, but didnít spread.

State Fire Marshal Lt. Les Nelson said an electrical problem in the kitchen started the blaze. It was ruled an accidental fire.

J.W. Hunt opened his restaurant in 1966 at a small location in St. Andrews. Three years ago it moved a block north to 1150 Beck Ave.

Twenty-eight minutes after firefighters suppressed the fire at Huntís, they were on their way a block north to Copa Cabana Hotel at 1212 Beck Ave. Smoke was seen coming from the rear of the hotel and firefighters found a laundry dryer on fire. The blaze was quickly extinguished.