Ind. AMVETS Vow to Rebuild After Devastating Blaze

July 19, 2013
Some firefighters were overcome by heat while battling the fire at the post.

July 18--After working the lunch shift at the Olive Garden, Dawn Bush was seated at her usual spot at the AMVETS bar Tuesday afternoon, enjoying a Coors Light and talking with friends.

When bar patron Matt James said he saw smoke coming from the adjacent bingo hall known as The Gathering, Bush grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran out the side door to put out what she figured was a trash fire. When she was 15 feet from the bingo venue, the door burst open, spewing out debris, smoke and flames. She sat the extinguisher down, ran to the front of the bar, and using an expletive that got everyone's attention, told them to get out -- now.

Bush helped her 73-year-old mother, Diana Hawkins, get outside. Then they stood back with others and watched the fire rage in the bingo hall, then spread next door to the AMVETS Post 2000 structure containing the bar. A smoking garden, with six picnic tables and benches, separates the structures. Even though the afternoon fire destroyed the smaller bar building and heavily damaged the bingo hall, the smoking area was unscathed.

Throughout the day Wednesday, investigators from the State Fire Marshal's Office and from Van Buren Township Fire Department searched through the charred rubble, seeking the fire's point of origin and cause. They have not yet reported their findings.

AMVETS spokesman Dave Cobb said the fire started in the back of the bingo hall in a kitchen; he speculated an appliance or electrical problem may be the cause. He expects to hear more in the next few days after investigators complete their reports. Cobb said the buildings are fully insured, and that AMVETS will rebuild on the 5-acre site on Airport Road as soon as possible. Offers of assistance are flowing in to an organization that funds numerous charitable causes.

"People are saying they will do anything they can to help us, because they know about all the charitable work we do," said Bush, an AMVETS member.

The AMVETS bingo games, held several times a week and attracting between 80 and 200 players each night, have an annual gross revenue that exceeds $1 million. Cobb said the Bloomington post has about 900 members, all related to a veteran, who pay $25 annual dues to be part of the organization.

Nancy Robertson worked as an AMVETS bartender for nine years before she retired. Since then, she drives to the club about every day to have a beer or two and socialize. "This is my family, my second family," she said, wiping away tears. She had stepped over the yellow tape put up to keep people away from the buildings and walked around to survey the damage.

Inside the bar, the AMVETS' Prisoner of War Memorial table was crushed by fallen beams. Flags from each branch of the military that had adorned the walls were burned and wet. Somehow, a framed American flag behind glass hung on the wall undamaged.

Firefighters from six area fire department responded to the blaze, reported about 3:25 p.m. Some were treated for heat exhaustion.

The bingo hall structure might be salvageable, Cobb said, but everything inside was destroyed: Rows of plastic tables with chairs pulled up, melted; the bingo console up on stage, the main attraction Wednesday and Friday nights, burnt.

But outside on a 90-plus degree afternoon, AMVETS members gathered in what they call the shelterhouse, a building that becomes an open-air space when several garage doors are opened. They coordinated the upcoming cleanup process and talked of rebuilding. People brought in food. And they set up a bar in the back, offering ice-cold beer and water 24 hours after a fire threatened to shut them down.

Copyright 2013 - Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind.

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