BY MARK NEWMAN Courier staff writer
The Ottumwa Daily Courier
---- — OTTUMWA — The Ottumwa Fire Department spent two hours trying to put out the fire at a Mexican restaurant, but in the end spent many more hours saving the buildings around it.
The fire department was called out about midnight, said Mike Craff, an assistant fire chief. He said there were flames showing at El Rancho Grande when they arrived.
Deputy Chief Cory Benge, the fire investigator, said flames could be seen coming from the basement and from the top floor of the two-story building.
"They did offensive attack inside for approximately two hours," said Craff, "but it had too big a head start."
The brightly colored restaurant, located in a restored, brick-faced industrial building, had many "voids" and spaces where oxygen waited or where flames could hide. The department would get it knocked down on one side, Craff said, only for it to spring up even worse at another corner of the building.
But they worked hard, said a neighbor Tuesday morning. Brandon Holstrom, response coordinator for the local Red Cross office, said his agency was involved in this blaze in two ways: by giving drinking water to help firefighters working the incident all night and because their Red Cross building is next door to El Rancho Grande.
During the fight, Benge said, the OFD received a call — a house fire on Pennsylvania Avenue. They sent trucks and personnel, including Benge. A clothes drier started a fire in a home. They put it out quickly. The deputy chief stationed a couple of firefighters there to make sure it was out, and he went back to El Rancho. But the department had some help.
"We were fortunate that Wapello County Rural Fire Department responded," said Ottumwa Fire Chief Tony Miller. "They did a great job."
Holstrom from the Red Cross also said firefighters did a great job, battling all night to keep flames away from the rest of the commercial block. Miller said the crews had been working on that even as they tried to knock down the fire inside the restaurant.
"After the flames went through the [restaurant] roof, we went defensive," he said.
Other neighbors around the intersection of Jefferson and Main streets include a small grocery store, two radio stations, a pizza place, a restaurant and a community building undergoing renovation. Though the firefighters had the power off to some of the street's residents, all of those structures seemed undamaged Tuesday morning.
El Rancho Grande, however, is a total loss. Tuesday morning, firefighters continued to spray water in through what used to be the roof. The basement had water in it. Benge estimated the water at 6-7 feet deep. He and the chief estimated nearly a million gallons of water were pumped onto the large restaurant building. The fastest-working truck, the snorkel, pumped a thousand gallons per minute for at least seven hours.
"Structural collapse is our main concern right now," said Benge. "There's obvious signs of deterioration due to the fire."
One experienced firefighter said a fair safety margin for fire equipment is to stay one and a half walls away from a dangerous structure. That gives a 20-foot wall a total of 30 feet to tip over, smash to the ground and for debris to spread out. The next building from El Rancho is about 10 feet away.
Benge and the State Fire Marshal's Office will be investigating the incident. There was no speculation as to cause early Tuesday.