June 21, 2018
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Investigators unable to pinpoint cause of Machias restaurant fire; more than $24,000 raised for displaced workers

By Tim Cox, BDN Staff

MACHIAS, Maine — Fire investigators will not be able to pinpoint the cause of a fire that destroyed a landmark Washington County business, a state official said Tuesday.

A fire erupted at Helen’s Restaurant on U.S. Route 1 in the early morning hours of Friday last week. Despite the efforts of firefighters from several communities, the building was destroyed.

Investigators were hampered because of the extensive damage to the building, said Sgt. Ken Grimes of the office of the State Fire Marshal.

“So it’s going to be officially classified as undetermined,” Grimes said Tuesday. “We don’t have enough information or evidence to classify the fire otherwise.”

There was no evidence that the blaze was suspicious in nature, he said. “I don’t believe there is any indication at this point that (it was) anything other than an accident,” said Grimes.

No one was reported injured in the blaze.

Grimes responded to questions in the absence of Sgt. Tim York, who was on the scene of the fire last week, probing the rubble. York, on vacation this week, said Friday the fire originated under the floor of the restaurant.

An online fundraising campaign to benefit the restaurant and its employees quickly surpassed its goal of collecting $20,000. The campaign has raised $24,214, thanks to donations from 336 people, according to information on its website Tuesday.

Julie Barker, who owns the restaurant business with her husband, David, said in a post on the website that the monies would be used to benefit employees. “To clarify, this fund is going directly to our employees to sustain them during the rebuilding process,” she wrote.

State Department of Labor officials met with David Barker and about 30 employees on Monday, reported Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for the agency. The meeting was part of the department’s rapid response program, which aids workers facing job loss because of downsizing or closures.

The Barkers, who said they have about 50 employees, estimated it would take six months to rebuild the restaurant, according to Rabinowitz, which coincides with the length of normal unemployment benefits.

The agency will waive a requirement that affected employees look for jobs while they collect unemployment benefits, said Rabinowitz. “The department is waiving the work-search requirement for the affected employees that qualify for unemployment so that when the restaurant reopens their trained staff will be ready to go right to work,” she told the Bangor Daily News via e-mail. Otherwise, employees would have to look for work and accept suitable job offers, she explained.

A waiver may be granted if a business closure is temporary and the company will need the workers again when it reopens, said Rabinowitz.

Gov. Paul LePage, in a statement issued the day of the fire, referred to the restaurant as a “Maine landmark.”

“Open year-round, the restaurant is also a local institution and gathering place,” said LePage. “This is a true loss for the owners, David and Julie Barker, as well as the Down East community.”

“It’s pretty devastating,” Town Manager Chris Loughlin said Friday.

The fire prompted the evacuation of guests from the adjacent Machias Motor Inn, and traffic on U.S. 1 was blocked off and detoured.


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