Fire destroys bar, part of theater

June 18, 2006|by CANDICE BOSELY


They don't yet know what caused the fire in an adjacent tavern that destroyed a portion of their business and damaged the rest, nor do they know how much they lost in terms of financial value.

But the owners of Berkeley Plaza Theatre are adamant their movie screens will not be forever darkened.

"We are planning on putting it back, and we are going to open back up," theater co-owner Bob Elliott said as he stood outside of his business a few hours after the Saturday morning fire.

One of the theater's six auditoriums was destroyed, and the rest of the business had smoke and water damage. A tavern in the plaza was destroyed, and several other businesses were affected by the fire, which remains under investigation.


The plaza is off U.S. 11 just north of Martinsburg.

Behind yellow tape, the facade of the theater was a blackened heap of burned rubble and twisted metal. All of the framed movie posters advertising the films playing within were destroyed.

All evidence points to the fire as having started in Duffey's Tavern, a bar next to the theater, Bedington Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Scott Schill said.

Officials with the state fire marshal's office and Berkeley County Sheriff's Department are investigating the fire and trying to determine its cause, Schill said. Officials with either agency could be reached.

As the day wore on, the owners of the seven-screen theater gathered in the parking lot of the shopping center, talking to people who drove up.

Elliott first arrived after hearing about the fire on a police scanner he keeps in his home.

"I came here at 4:30 (a.m.) and it was blazing," said Elliott, who owns the theater with Chuck Costollo of Springfield, W.Va.

"I thought I was dreaming," Elliott said of first hearing the news on the police scanner. "And then it was back over the scanner, and I knew something was wrong."

First thought: Just a drill

Mike Keller, who owns Duffey's, also was taken aback when he first heard of the fire. He received a phone call about it, but thought the caller had misunderstood and that it actually was just a fire drill, since drills frequently are held at the plaza.

As he approached the building, Keller quickly saw he was wrong.

"I made that turn and I was sick," he said.

The tavern was gutted, he said.

"It was a hot fire," Keller said. "It took and melted every TV I had in there down to nothing."

Support beams buckled, and Keller said he is not sure rebuilding will be possible. However, he said the tavern, which has been in business for 15 years and he has owned for seven years, will serve drinks again somewhere, sometime.

"It might be the end of this Duffey's, but it's the beginning of a new one," he said.

The owners of both the theater and the tavern said that firefighters could not tell them what caused the blaze.

When the tavern last was closed for the night, the same procedures as always were followed and nothing seemed to be amiss, Keller said.

About 600 people belonged to the members-only bar. Those who wanted to enter Duffey's had to be buzzed in.

Berkeley Plaza, including the theater, opened in 1965. Elliott started working at the theater in 1975 as an usher, when he made 75 cents an hour - a lot of money to a teenager, he said.

For years, the theater was the only multiplex in town. Even after another large multiplex opened across town, Berkeley Plaza Theatre managed to stay open, partially because of low prices.

A child could attend a movie and buy popcorn, candy and a drink for $5, the owners said.

Elliott and Costollo vowed not to raise prices when the theater reopens.

The efforts of the firefighters who fought the blaze were applauded by Elliott.

"I think they did an amazing job," he said. "It could've been worse than it was."

Although the damage could have been more serious, those who drove up to the theater still were met with a bewildering sight. A woman in a blue SUV held her hand to her mouth as a look of shock crossed her face when she spotted the theater.

Brian Byrne and his son, Michael, have been watching movies at the theater for about 10 years.

"I just think of it as a place for children," Byrne said, adding that children and teenagers could congregate there and have a good time.

Michael said he liked going to the theater because it was cheap and, in his opinion, the crowds were better than at Martinsburg's other multiplex.

"They don't yell at the movie," he said.

Plan of attack helped control blaze

Schill - Bedington's fire chief - said the fire first was reported at 4:36 a.m. and that his department was dispatched two minutes later.

When he arrived, heavy flames were present, he said.

"Duffey's Tavern is no more," Schill said. "That was the brunt of the damage from fire."

Given that Duffey's could not be salvaged, firefighters from the seven fire companies from two states that responded primarily focused on preventing the fire from spreading.

"We had a pretty good plan early on," Schill said. "We've had experience with fire in that shopping center."

Drills typically are held at the shopping center several times a month, given that years ago, a different portion of the complex was destroyed by fire, Schill said.

Firefighters attacked the fire from the left and right, from above and from within.

"The crews did a phenomenal job on the interior attack," despite facing what had to be severe heat and heavy smoke, Schill said.

Without a solid plan and approach, the damage could have been greater, Schill said.

"It looks really bad, but I can see in my mind what it could have easily been," Schill said.

No fire equipment was damaged and, most importantly, Schill said, nobody was injured.

"All in all, with what we had, it was a good job by everybody," he said.

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