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MACHIAS, Maine — An early morning fire on Friday destroyed Helen’s Restaurant, a landmark business in Washington County.
The owners, however, pledged to rebuild the popular eatery.
Firefighters were called to the blaze shortly before 2 a.m., and crews from Machiasport, Marshfield, East Machias, Roque Bluffs and Jonesboro responded.
Firefighters entered the burning building, located on U.S. 1 at the junction of the Machias River and the Middle River, but were unable to extinguish the blaze. They had to resort to containing it.
They remained through mid-morning, coating the remains of the fire with foam, and a few stayed on the scene into the afternoon. The roof had caved in before firefighters had a chance to extinguish the blaze.
The building was destroyed. No one had been inside when the fire broke out and dispatchers said no injuries were reported.
The owners of Helen’s, David and Julie Barker of Machias, said later they would rebuild the restaurant and hoped to reopen next spring.
The fire appeared to have originated in the kitchen area, said Machias Fire Chief Joey Dennison.
Sgt. Tim York of the office of the State Fire Marshal was at the scene with other investigators, probing the charred remains of the building while an excavator was used to remove debris. The fire originated under the floor in the vicinity of the kitchen and dining room, he reported, but the cause was undetermined.
Traffic on U.S. 1 was blocked off and detoured throughout the day.
Firefighters evacuated guests in the adjacent Machias Motor Inn in the early morning.
Cliff Smith, a guest at Machias Motor Inn who was evacuated after firefighters arrived, said he heard someone pounding on his motel room door at about 1:45 a.m. He said he ignored it, thinking it was a drunk person. A short time later, there were more knocks on the door, and firefighters ordered Smith and his wife, Pam Anzaldi, to leave, he said. The couple took what they could carry, made their way to their car, and drove onto the nearby Middle River dike.
When he came out of the motel, Smith said he saw smoke pouring out from under the eaves of the restaurant building, where he and his wife had dined the evening before.
Smith, 75, of Lunenburg, Massachusetts, drove back across the dike and parked nearby to watch the firefighters, equipped with air packs, enter the burning building to try to extinguish the flames. However, after about 30 minutes, they had to withdraw, said Smith.
“They couldn’t knock the fire down,” he said, adding that at one point, flames shot 30 to 40 feet into the air.
Smith said the fire was under control at about 5 a.m., and they were allowed to return to their room at the inn at about 6 a.m. The couple, en route to Nova Scotia, had a reservation for one night.
Firefighters were hampered because a hydrant across the street malfunctioned. They drew water from the Machias River, although it was low tide.
Town Manager Chris Loughlin noted that the loss of the business will have a significant impact on the community.
“It’s one of the popular places that people stop off at in town,” he said, and one of only a couple of large restaurants.
The business employs about 40-50 workers, according to Loughlin.
“They lost their jobs,” he said.
He estimated that it will take a year before the restaurant could be rebuilt and back on its feet.
“It’s pretty devastating,” he said.
“It’s one of the places where you say, ‘Machias,’ people know Helen’s,” observed Loughlin.
“We were just hitting our stride for the summer,” he said, referring to the tourist season. “It’s put a hitch in it. Not the way to start a Friday.”
The manager of the Machias Career Center, the local office of the Maine Department of Labor, has been in contact with the owners and will meet with them Monday, said Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for the agency.
After the meeting next week, the department will schedule a “rapid response” session to provide services to the affected employees.
“All the gears have been set in motion,” said Rabinowitz.
“Helen’s is a Maine landmark,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a news release issued by the department. “Open year-round, the restaurant is also a local institution and gathering place. This is a true loss for the owners, David and Julie Barker, as well as the Down East community.”
Velma Pineo, a desk clerk for the Machias Motor Inn, said guests who were evacuated from 36 rooms were offered refunds, but few accepted them.
“I thought it was unbelievable that people were so kind,” she said.
The inn closed a separate wing, closest to the restaurant, because of the lingering smell of smoke, although there were still a few guests lodged there.
The loss of the restaurant and the ensuing clean-up will certainly negatively impact the business of the inn, she said.
“That’s a landmark,” said Pineo. “They’ve heard of Helen’s Restaurant. They might not have heard of the Machias Motor Inn. It’s really a major loss.”
The popular eatery is one of only a few restaurants in Machias. It has been a mainstay business since 1950. In 2005, Life Magazine named Helen’s blueberry pie as the best in America.
The restaurant was originally located in a building on Main Street in Machias. It moved to its present location in 1983, according to its website.
A fundraising page for employees has been set up at http://www.gofundme.com/bddzng.