Tarpon Springs Fla--2nd Restaurant Sustains Heavy Damage in Early Morning Blaze
Top floor consumed in Ballyhoo Grill fire
Police spotted the blaze shortly after employees left the Tarpon Springs seafood bar and restaurant.
By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
Published December 30, 2003
TARPON SPRINGS - A raging fire destroyed the second floor of Ballyhoo Grill early Monday morning, doing roughly $500,000 in damage to the historic building.
The blaze started a little before 1 a.m. Monday, roughly half an hour after restaurant workers left the popular Tarpon Springs seafood bar and grill.
Ballyhoo's co-manager Mike Parks said he and other workers began closing the restaurant around 10 p.m. and left around 12:30 a.m. after cleaning up.
"Everything was normal when we left," said Parks, 31.
The scene was anything but normal when Parks returned late Monday morning. The restaurant's outer walls were blackened by the blaze. The front door had been smashed in by firefighters. Flames had engulfed the roof and scorched the leaves of a 120-year-old oak tree on the building's north side.
The sturdy old tree was still standing. But the roof and most of the second floor of the building was gone.
"I still can't believe this happened," Parks said.
Neither could Ballyhoo owner Chris Fragale.
Fragale, 50, was sound asleep at his Palm Harbor home when fire department officials called him about the fire around 1 a.m. Within minutes he was dressed and out the door, speeding north to his worst nightmare.
"You could see the smoke from where I was on U.S. 19," Fragale said. "It's pretty awful to see your business on fire."
Two Tarpon Springs police officers on patrol first noticed the smoke and radioed for help, said Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue Chief Kevin Bowman.
The first firefighters arrived five minutes later. Fire officials summoned 14 fire engines to the scene.
"We knew we were going to have a heck of a fire fight on our hands," Bowman said. "So we got additional resources there early so we would have enough personnel on hand."
It took firefighters about 90 minutes to get the fire under control, Bowman said. But several bleary-eyed firefighters were still on the scene checking for live embers late Monday morning.
No one was in the building when the fire broke out and no one was injured.
Fragale and others watched for hours as firefighters blasted the building with water and later checked small areas of the restaurant that were still smoldering. The restaurant's first floor was heavily damaged by smoke and the water used to quell the flames. White table clothes were streaked with soot and shards of glass from broken windows on the first floor. Entryway floorboards were buckled and waterlogged.
"They poured a lot of gallons in there," Fragale said.
Reconstruction of the nearly century-old building and bringing it up to current fire code standards could be complicated and costly, fire officials said. Bowman estimated that it could take weeks to clean up and open the restaurant.
Bowman said Monday afternoon that fire inspectors are still investigating the cause.
The fire at Ballyhoo Grill was the second in the area in the last two weeks. On Dec. 18, Louis Pappas' Riverside Restaurant across Pinellas Avenue was closed for a day after a small fire in a heating duct.
With Tarpon Springs' winter tourism season now under way, Monday's fire couldn't have come at a worse time for the Ballyhoo Grill. With weekly sales of roughly $50,000, the Tarpon Springs eatery is a big draw for visitors to the nearby Sponge Docks.
Fragale said he was expecting a sizable crowd for New Year's Eve. Now he doesn't even want to think about the revenue he'll lose from restaurant regulars.
"We have customers that eat here four or five times a week. There will be a lot of disappointed people this week," Fragale said.
Fragale owns three Ballyhoo restaurants; the other two are in Tampa and Gainesville. He launched the Tarpon Springs seafood eatery after purchasing the historical two-story clapboard house at 900 Pinellas Ave. N and converting it into a restaurant about nine years ago.
Fire officials said the building is roughly 100 years old and was once part of a now-defunct, nearby sawmill.
"It's an old building," Fragale said as he gestured toward the collapsed roof. "They don't make them like they used to."
- Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 727 445-4181 or firstname.lastname@example.org