Early morning blaze destroys eatery near Key Biscayne lighthouse
Officials are investigating the cause of a fire that destroyed a popular cafe at Bill Baggs State Park.

By SOFIA SANTANA
ssantana@herald.com

The popular seafood restaurant near the Cape Florida lighthouse in Bill Baggs State Park on Key Biscayne closed at sunset on New Year's Eve. Hours later, it was ablaze.

The Lighthouse Café, which opened in 1995, was reduced to ash and debris.

''This was a lot of hard work for many years,'' co-owner Reina Gonzalez said Thursday, holding her hand to her forehead as she looked at what remained. She owned the cafe with her husband, David.

Thursday evening, investigators were still at the scene and the fire's cause remained unknown. No one was injured.

Investigators believe the fire started after 5:30 a.m. A man called 911 at 6:04 a.m. and said the structure was in flames.

The Gonzalezes plan to rebuild the cafe, which offered a constantly changing menu of seafood dishes in an open-air, rustic setting. The couple also owns the Boater's Grill restaurant in the park.

The Lighthouse Café was a concession stand when the couple bought it, and it grew from there.

''We didn't think it would work out, but slowly it did,'' Reina Gonzalez said.

Many local residents visited the cafe regularly. ''This place had great everything: prices, food and service,'' said Cheri Mires, who lives in Coconut Grove and has gone to the cafe at least once a month during the summer since it opened.

''We were talking about coming here yesterday,'' said Mark Garcia, who was with his wife Thursday, looking over what was left of the cafe. ``This was a nice place, and to see it all burned down like this. . . .''

The Gonzalezes, who live in the park, learned about the fire when a park ranger knocked on their door about 6:15 a.m.

''[The ranger] said the restaurant was in flames,'' Reina Gonzalez said.

Fire engines from Key Biscayne and Miami reached the burning cafe about 6:10 a.m.

Minutes later, the structure toppled in the fire, which was still smoking eight hours later, firefighters said.

County fire units, which are responsible for emergency calls in the park, reached the cafe at 6:18 a.m, according to county fire officials.

A supervisor said the units were likely handling other calls when they learned of the cafe fire, which is probably why it took them longer to get there than the city departments.

In situations like this, nearby fire departments help out. However, several county firefighters who didn't want to give their names told a Herald reporter that the engines from Key Biscayne and Miami didn't want to touch the fire until the county arrived.

Key Biscayne and Miami fire officials said that's not how it happened.

''Key Biscayne arrived first, and they started fighting the fire,'' said Miami Fire Capt. Jim Tolbert. ``[Miami and Key Biscayne] were back-up until the county arrived. We had all our hose lines laid, and then we gave [the scene] to the county when they arrived.''