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Structure fire claims John A. Lau Saloon, spares Thunder Bay Theatre

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Firefighters attack a large fire that destroyed John A. Lau Saloon Tuesday. The fire started from a welding mishap and quickly spread. Fire crews set up a defensive posture and were able to save the connected Thunder Bay Theatre.

ALPENA — On the eve of its re-grand opening, John A. Lau Saloon is no more, as it succumbed to a fire on Tuesday in old town Alpena.

The Thunder Bay Theatre was spared, with the exception of some smoke and water damage, after firefighters took a defensive posture to keep the fire from spreading beyond the restaurant.

The blaze started in the early afternoon on Tuesday, due to an accident involving some welding that was being done to the structure in preparation for Wednesday’s opening, Alpena Fire Chief Bill Forbush said during a press conference at the scene.

He said when fire crews arrived on the scene of the structure on North Second Avenue around 1:35 p.m., the blaze was fully involved and because of its age and the fact that it was made out of wood, the fire spread quickly.

Forbush said fires that happen when many buildings are connected or close together–as they are near the restaurant–often claim several businesses, but because of the work of first responders, that scenario didn’t play out Tuesday.

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Firefighters with the Alpena Fire Department and the Alpena Township Fire Department work to put out a fire at John A. Lau Saloon Tuesday on North Second Avenue. The facade collapsed later Tuesday afternoon.

“Because these downtown buildings, because they are connected, we really expect to lose a whole block when there is a major building fire,” Forbush said. “It was a huge success to be able to stop it at the firewall. I really credit our crews and our partners for making that happen.

Forbush said the Alpena Convention and Visitors Bureau office, which is only a few yards away as well, also avoided serious damage.

Forbush said Alpena Power was called to shut off a power line because they couldn’t risk having lines fall while fighting the fire. He said the line also provided power to much of the city, so there are city residents without power.

Alpena Mayor Matt Waligora complimented residents for their understanding and patience while their power was turned off.

“We understand the inconvenience of the power outage and I thank everyone for helping us work through this. I want to recognize our partners with the township, Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, and Red Cross for assisting us and it is quite amazing that we didn’t have any injuries,” he said.

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Thunder Bay Theatre’s Artistic Director Lucas Moquin sits and watches as a fire burns through John A. Lau Saloon on Tuesday, next to the Thunder Bay Theatre. Moquin lives in the apartments above the theater.

Waligora said the splash park at Starlite Beach was also shut down, to help provide needed water supply and pressure to the scene.

While fighting the fire, sections of the structure began to collapse into Second Avenue. Forbush said when that began to happen, portions of the scene were considered a do-not-go area for firefighters, forcing them to find alternate locations to battle the blaze.

Forbush said the building will have to be torn down, as soon as the fire is extinguished, which could be late Tuesday night, as he said crews would be busy putting out hotspots for many hours.

Restaurant owner Jon Benson, who also owns J.J’s Steakhouse across the street, declined to comment, saying he was “having a bad day.”

Head Chef Devin Barriager, who was working in the building when the fire began, said he was not sure if the fire started over the kitchen or in the wall.

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Firefighters with the Alpena Fire Department and the Alpena Township Fire Department work to extinguish the fire at John A Lau Saloon Tuesday on North Second Avenue.

“The next thing I knew, it was on,” he said.

Line Cook Dustin Cohoon was the one who dialed 911. Cohoon, who went outside to see if there was a fire, said he told operators the back was fully engulfed.

Then he ran inside to let everyone know the firetrucks were on their way. Once the female staff ran out, Cohoon closed the door behind them. Cohoon said he was worried about his car, which was parked behind the restaurant, and if there would be any smoke damage.

Barriager and Cohoon said they didn’t think they would have a job as of Wednesday, but were confident their boss Benson would help them with whatever is next.

“I know John’s a good guy, he will take care of us,” Barriager said.

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Firefighters fight the fire that burned John A. Lau Saloon from across 2nd Avenue. Portions of the structure collapsed, which forced firefighters to battle the blaze from further away and from different directions.

Abby Middlebrook lives in an apartment upstairs from Thunder Bay Theatre, which shares a brick wall with John A. Lau. She and the other tenant, TBT Artistic Director Lucas Moquin, as well as guest Adrian Alexander, smelled smoke and got out unscathed. Middlebrook watched with a stoic look on her face as firefighters tried to battle the blaze billowing around her building.

“Honestly I’m just kind of in shock at this point,” Middlebrook said. “Lucas came and knocked on my door and was like, ‘John A. Lau may be on fire, and we may have to evacuate.’ And then we walked down the hallway and it was filled with smoke, so we obviously grabbed whatever we could and just ran out.”

She was happy that no one was hurt, but worried about Thunder Bay Theatre, which just redesigned its new lobby last year.

“I’m just hoping that the theater doesn’t get any damage,” Middlebrook said. “This is 2020. Fires, COVID, what more?”

Fire 1

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News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Smoke drowned out the sun over John A. Lau Saloon while the fire raged Tuesday, while blue sky was evident only a few yards away from the Alpena Convention and Visitors Bureau, which was spared damage.

Fire 2

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News Photo by Crystal Nelson Firefighters with the Alpena Fire Department on Tuesday work to put out a fire at the John A. Lau Saloon on North Second Avenue, while the steeple of St. Mary’s Church is pictured in the background.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley In this photo taken shortly after 8 p.m. on Tuesday, firefighters continue to douse the remains of John A. Lau Saloon, an historic restaurant on North 2nd Avenue in downtown Alpena. Thunder Bay Theatre next door remains standing, but the smoke damage is yet to be determined from the fire, which firefighters were called out to at approximately 1:35 p.m. on Tuesday.

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