The commercial heart of Westville had a hole in it Tuesday after an all-night fire left a century-old landmark building, and the popular restaurant and pub on its first floor, in ruins.
Close to four dozen firefighters spent a full eight hours battling the “stubborn” blaze, in the words of Chief Allyn Wright, that destroyed the building at the corner of Whalley and Central Avenues.
Peter Gresme, who ran Delaney’s Restaurant and Tap Room on the first floor, was seating diners at around 5:30 p.m. Monday when he heard “popping” in the basement. He discovered the beginning of the fire, and helped usher all patrons and employees and upstairs tenants to safety.
By 1 a.m. flames could still be seen coming out of the building; the commercial center of Westville was for hours engulfed in smoke. Firefighters, battling the blaze from outside rather than inside because of the building’s precarious state, finally completed the job at around 1:45 a.m., according to police spokesman David Hartman.
Three firefighters were treated at the hospital for smoke inhalation. None appeared to have been seriously injured, according to mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer. Grotheer said the hospital had discharged two of the three firefighters by Tuesday morning, and one had already returned to duty. About 10 tenants lost their homes in the blaze; firefighters rescued a cat named Molly from the second floor.
Streets remained closed in the vicinity Tuesday morning as firefighters continued spraying water on the debris ...
... and a Southern Connecticut Gas worker inspected crevasses for signs of potential gas leaks. Grotheer said streets will remain closed “indefinitely” as the city prepares to demolish the structure’s remains. “This is all about public safety right now,” he said.
The Delaney’s Tap Room sign (pictured at the top of the story), meanwhile, sat on a charred pile of rubble, its brilliant colors a reminder of what once stood. At the corner of Central Avenue and Fountain Street, emptied bottles of wine and beer lay strewn about the ground, remnants of stunned neighbors that sipped as they watched the blaze consume a restaurant—first as the Cape Codder, then Delaney’s—that had served the community for decades. (Email here for details about where to send donations.)
A combination of factors caused the fire to grow before help could immediately arrive: Westville firefighters were out at another call. And then, because an electrical wire was down on the street, United Illuminating first had to arrive to shut down power in the area, which took at least a half hour, according to witnesses.
By 10:20 p.m., firefighters were still trying to put out the blaze, as thick black smoke enveloped the commercial center of Westville and rise high in the sky. Flames were still shooting out of one corner of the building.
Chief Allyn Wright (at left center in photo, steps from the Delaney’s building while the fire raged) said he had to keep his firefighters outside, rather than inside the building, because the second story had already collapsed.
“It’s a stubborn fire. It just won’t go out. We attacked it from all four sides. It’s too hazardous to go inside,” Wright said. “The building’s a total loss. It buckled from the front.”
Crowds of onlookers were still outside taped-off areas a block or two away from the village center in all directions.
Firefighters rescued a cat named Molly from the building’s second floor, according to police spokesman Officer David Hartman.
The two-story, 9,451-quare-foot clapboard building was constructed in 1900, according to the city’s appraisal database. According to the Westville Village Historic District filing, it was built in 1913 as the Hotel Edgewood. A limited liability corporation out of Stratford, called Gold Raven Properties, is the current owner. A state government database lists Ronald Groves of Stratford, who runs a commercial real estate firm, as the company’s “member/manager.”
Watching the blaze with the crowd on Central Avenue a block away, the restaurant’s owner, Peter Gremse (pictured), said he discovered the fire in the basement around 5:30 p.m. (Gremse rents the restaurant space from Gold Raven Properties.)
“I was seating some people,” Gremse said. “We had a pretty good crowd. There was some popping in the basement. There was fire coming out the main panel, the main switch. I ran outside; we got everyone out of the building. I like an idiot went downstairs to try to put it out.” The smoke was too thick.
The fire spread outside. “The transformer was popping like the Fourth of July,” Gremse said.
Gremse’s restaurant and pub had three rooms, and at least that many forms of loyal clientele: Sports fans who gathered for the Super Bowl or World Series; families bringing their kids or couples out on the town for dinner; college students congregating in the Whalley-side tap room; politicians brokering endorsements and dropped campaigns. (An upcoming “Tip-A-Cop” fundraiser for the Special Olympics had been scheduled at the restaurant; Officer Hartman said the event will take place at a to-be-announced new venue, tentatively planned for Sept. 19.)
Gremse ran the establishment for over 13 years. He said he has insurance for the business, and hopes it will cover his extensive and expensive wine collection: “I have one of the oldest wine selections in New Haven. I have some of the oldest bourbons.”