Fire at Corner Bar: ‘Feels like we lost somebody’

Dumpster fire led to gas meter explosion, hourslong blaze at 144-year-old building

Corner Bar, Rockford, fire
Smoke billows in front of the sign at the Corner Bar in Rockford. (Aug. 14, 2017)


ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — After Rockford’s iconic Corner Bar burned for hours Monday, an open gas line causing explosions and fueling flames, owners promised they will rebuild.

Rockford Public Safety Chief Dave Jones said the flames started in a dumpster behind the business at 31 N. Main St. around 5 a.m. While crews had that fire knocked down within about five to 10 minutes, Jones said it appears heat and pressure from the fire caused the gas meter to explode about a half hour later.

Jones said firefighters were working in the basement just before that gas main exploded, sending flames through the west side of the building.

“We’re very, very happy and luckily they were able to get out of the building before that explosion,” said Jones, who added no one was injured.

Jones said the building was “extensively” damaged and the west side wall was buckling. Crews worked to keep the flames in check from outside the building because it was too dangerous to go inside.

He said crews couldn’t shut off gas to the building because the shutoff was right at the site of the fire and none of the several gas shutoffs in the nearby street went to the Corner Bar. Jones said DTE crews had to dig up Courtland Street and pinch off the gas line, which ended up taking about three hours.

During that wait, Jones said firefighters focused on keeping fryer oil in the bar’s basement from adding to the problem.

“That’s another fuel that adds to that. We have all of our hoses pointed at that general direction trying to keep that area cool, so that fire won’t rekindle today,” he said.

Jones said crews from five departments dumped millions of gallons of water as their firefighting efforts continued into the early afternoon.

“It’s just a blowtorch. … We’re just trying to keep everything cool around it,” he added.

The roof and second floor of the building collapsed Monday afternoon because of the fire. An excavator could be scene clearing remnants of the building’s back corner. Jones called the loss of the business “tragic.”

“This is a devastating loss for the city of Rockford. Everyone knows the Corner Bar is a destination. Everyone I talk to that talks about the city of Rockford, they talk about we drive up here to go to the Corner Bar. So, certainly it’s a devastating loss,” the public safety chief said. “This is like a family member that’s been here for 70 years. And you can’t talk to anybody that’s visited Rockford and not been to the Corner Bar.”

It’s unclear what caused the initial dumpster fire, but Jones said it’s not suspicious.

Firefighters from Courtland Township arrived Monday evening to relieve the Rockford Fire Department crews who had been on the scene all day. They were still occasionally dousing hot spots some 18 hours after the fire started and Jones said they would stay on the job overnight.

The intersection of Main and Courtland remained blocked off to traffic Monday night. The closure was expected to continue all day Tuesday — and perhaps longer.

“It’s a really good idea to avoid downtown Rockford. We’re cutting off everything to the Central Business District until we’re able to clear the fire,” Jones said.

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CORNER BAR SAYS IT WILL BE BACK

Jones said the owner of Corner Bar was at the site from the very beginning, watching the firefighting efforts from a private spot.

“It’s very tough. It’s going to be very tough for the city. This is our landmark. It’s one of our signatures. You can’t open up a magazine anywhere without the Corner Bar prominently displayed as part of Rockford. It’s going to be very tough for us,” he said.

In a statement posted to Facebook, the Corner Bar thanked the community for outpouring support and was “assessing things.”

“…Let us reassure you that the Corner Bar will continue our fine history of serving the Rockford community just as soon as we get things sorted,” it read in part.

The blue and white lighted sign on the front of the bar was undamaged. Crews carefully removed it Monday afternoon. But it’s not yet clear what else — if anything — could be salvaged for a rebuild and when that process will begin.

But only hours after the fire sparked, the Corner Bar began handing out free hot dogs farther down on Courtland Street.

“That brick isn’t what the Corner Bar was,” manager John Vanaman said. “The Corner Bar, it resides in the community.”

SERVER: ‘WHAT DO I DO TOMORROW?’

Dozens of Corner Bar employees gathered Monday night to share hugs and shed tears.

“It feels like we just lost somebody, even though no one was hurt,” server Abby Beurmann told 24 Hour News 8.

For her and about 70 other workers, the short-term future is unclear.

“What do I do tomorrow?” she wondered. “You know, I’m supposed to be here at work.”

Other businesses that line Rockford’s downtown hope to provide an answer. Several restaurants have offered work shifts to affected Corner Bar employees. And Uccello’s, which sits just a few storefronts down, has decided to donate 15 percent of its sales Thursday to the displaced workers.

“It’s the service industry. We all kind of mesh together,” Amie Uccello, who owns the restaurant, told 24 Hour News 8. “When something happens with one of our other businesses, we’re here to step up and help out.”

–24 Hour News 8’s Evan Dean

TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT

Among those watching the progression of the fire was the man who owns the business next door. Flames were just feet away from the doorstep of Lakes and Land Realty.

“This morning I woke up to the news and saw my office look like it was on fire,” owner Chris Ortwein said as he arrived on the scene Monday morning

“Quite a shock,” he added as smoke continued to billow from the bar.

Ortwein said he was told his building suffered smoke damage but the fire never spread next door.

In fact, none of the surrounding businesses suffered significant damage. Mostly dealt only with flooded basements as a result of the fire response. Jones said most of the stores downtown should be back open Tuesday.

He is among those hoping his neighbors are able to return soon. He said his primary concern was for the people and he was happy that everyone was safe.

“That’s the main thing,” he said. “We can always rebuild.”

–24 Hour News 8’s Leon Hendrix

HISTORY OF 31 N. MAIN ST.

A staple and community cornerstone located literally on the corner of Main Street, the Corner Bar is a big part of Rockford history. It’s famous for the Hot Dog Hall of Fame.

“I think it’s sad,” resident Jackie Nowack said of the fire. “This was a monument restaurant for the Rockford area.”

“My kids come down here weekly for hot dogs,” added resident Laura Kaminski.

“Everybody that’s here, there’s nobody old enough to remember when they put it in, but they remember eating hot dogs,” said retired Rockford Judge Steven Servaas.

Built in 1873, the restaurant’s website said it was the “oldest brick building in town.”

A local historian says it was ironically the only building on the block to survive a large fire in the late 1890s.

“The building that survived the big fire is gone in another fire,” Terry Conkle, the president of the Rockford Area Historical Society, said.

During the 1930s, the building was previously home to a pool hall. At the end of Prohibition, the owner wanted a beer license, but need to serve food to get one. The first item on the menu was hot dogs. According to the restaurant, then-owner Harold Bailey Sr. and George Myers, a former Army cook, came up with a special sauce and created the Corner Bar chili dog.

“Everybody has a great story about the Corner Bar,” Servaas said.

Most of the stories involve the Hot Dog Hall of Fame, which was created in 1968 by Donald Berg. The Corner Bar say the fire didn’t destroy the Hall of Fame, as it has a digital database of all of the names. The bar says that when it reopens, the names will go back up.

–24 Hour News 8’s Heather Walker