Originally created 06/28/01

Flames destroy nightclub



The Bayou seemed to be reaping the benefits of Augusta's burgeoning bar and pub scene.

The swamp-themed nightclub started serving lunch about a month ago, and business had been picking up. Lines formed outside the front door on weekend nights, patrons said. Monday nights were reserved for a dart league.

But early Wednesday, it was the raging fire that drew scores of people to the brick building in the 900 block of Broad Street, a few doors down from Ruben's Department Store. It broke out on the club's off night, possibly in the empty loft.

About 70 firefighters fought the blaze using eight engines and four trucks with aerial ladders. Flames shot through the roof as hoses rained water from ladders high above. The smell of burning roof tar permeated the night air as smoke poured over the city block.

No injuries were reported in the fire, which still smoldered well past daybreak. A hot spot flared up about 7:30 a.m. - more than six hours after the fire department received the first call.

Richmond County Fire Investigator Lt. G.B. Hannan began looking for the origin of the fire Wednesday afternoon. He said it will be lengthy and difficult, and could prove impossible.

"The insurance company will send an investigator to work with me, and if we can't find the origin of the fire, it will depend on how much time the insurance company wants to spend on it," he said.

Bayou owner James Norman and his wife, Vickie, took inventory in the nightclub Wednesday. The club was a charred and soaked mess inside. Water and sunlight seeped through its collapsed ceiling, which had landed on the bar. Ashes and water covered the floors and the sidewalk outside. Pool tables appeared intact, but drenched. Some drink machines were spared.

Next door, at Dunlap Studio and Gallery, artist Jill Stafford, one of seven artists who rented space there, moved framed paintings outside and leaned them against a wall. She and others will be looking for another building on Broad Street.

The studio was part of downtown's Artist's Row concept, meant to attract artists who created, showed and sold their work. The studio and Georgia Internet Link were not damaged by the fire but were flooded by water pumped onto the fire.

Rhodes Variety Shop on the opposite side of the gallery was virtually untouched. Fire walls on both sides of the Bayou kept the fire from spreading farther.

Eddie and Sherry Phillips, owners of Georgia Internet Link, moved furniture and equipment onto a pickup truck with the help of several firefighters Wednesday.

"The fire department told me they don't know when I'd be able to lock the door," Mr. Phillips said. "I've got a lot of expensive stuff in there. I'm not leaving it. I know they had to do their job, but they broke every door in the building."

Mrs. Stafford said she does not believe the building will be repairable.

"The firemen tell us that roof above us is not safe," she said. "It's full of water, and it could just come down at any time."

The building that houses the nightclub, art gallery and Internet company was built in 1921. Each floor covered 8,401 square feet of space, but the building was divided into three sections in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

The owner, Augusta businesswoman Bonnie Ruben, and her husband, Jeff Gorelick, watched helplessly from the sidewalk as firefighters finished their work Wednesday morning. Occasionally, firefighters broke out windows and pouring more water into the hot ashes.

The Bayou had a sprinkler system but it had never worked, and the fire department did not require it to. Lt. Hannan said the nightclub was exempt because it did not have enough floor space to require a sprinkler system.

Mr. Norman said he thought the fire started on the second floor. After his alarm company called him at 2 a.m. and told him to bring a key, he arrived and saw no fire in the nightclub. It was all on the second floor, he said.

The club had been closed Tuesday, and carpet cleaners had been there, Mr. Norman said. He normally opened Wednesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and from 6 p.m. to closing time for the night crowd, said Mrs. Norman, who often worked shifts there.

Mr. Norman last went inside about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to pick up some money, then locked up for the night, his wife said.

The Bayou had been open since October. Mr. Norman said he had insurance on the business.

The kitchen served fried alligator, crawfish and daiquiris. A mural depicting a swamp scene covered a wall. There was a dance floor and a stage where bands played on weekends.

"People turned out," said Valerie Sawyer, 24, a patron who sat on a beach towel and watched the fire early Wednesday. "It was so nice."

The Phillipses said the Internet company had been plagued recently by a vagrant who came into their business and looked up pornography sites on a computer until they made him leave. The vagrant then started hanging around the back.

The building had been burglarized earlier this month. Someone broke into a storage area in the rear and stole Mr. Phillips' weight training equipment. They stole a painting by Mrs. Stafford and the wine that was to be used by the Artist Row artists' monthly First Friday celebration.

The name of Mrs. Stafford's stolen abstract painting was Borrowed Time.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or Sylvia Cooper at (706) 821-3228.