DALLAS — More than 100 Dallas firefighters fought a four-alarm fire that ate its way through four popular restaurants and bars on Lower Greenville Avenue in the early morning hours.
The blaze started at about 5:45 a.m. in the kitchen area at Terilli's Restaurant & Bar in the 2800 block of Greenville Avenue. Flames could be seen shooting out of the large building and smoke plumes could be seen for miles. Terilli's, The Hurricane Grill, Greenville Bar and Grill and Mick's Bar were all destroyed in the fire that spread through Terilli's attic area and burned its way through the popular bars and eateries.
"I looked through the backdoor and the windows and the roof was completely collapsed," said Gregg Merkow, who owns both the Greenville Bar and Grill and The Hurricane Grill. "The only thing still standing is the exterior walls ... You never want anything to happen, but this is the worst possible scenario that could occur."
"It's just a building but there are memories in that building," said Jessica Bates, a former employee.
"We went into panic mode. You could barely see across the street," said witness Ryan McCollum.
The section of Greenville Avenue in front of the building was closed as Dallas Fire-Rescue crews and the ATF dug through the rubble and investigated the cause of the fire. Investigators have ruled out arson but instead, are concentrating on electrical problems as the likely cause of the blaze.
Merkow did not have fire insurance for either business. He said he let it lapse because of its high cost. He had 30 employees who are all now without a job.
The destructive blaze also hit the businesses just days before the area's biggest money maker of the year, the annual St. Patrick's Day celebration. Business owners said they earn an entire year's worth of rent the day of the St. Patrick's Day Parade.
"All of these are historic restaurants on Lower Greenville. These are some of the best places in the neighborhood," said Angela Hunt from Dallas City Council.
Firefighters fought the blaze from tall ladders hovering above the now gutted building. One firefighter suffered heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation and was treated at a nearby hospital. He is in good condition.
The structure that housed the restaurants was built in the 1920s, said Patricia Carr, president of the Lower Greenville Neighborhood Association.
"This is as bad as the Arcadia going down," said Carr, referring to the 2006 fire that destroyed the historic Arcadia theater, a few blocks south on Greenville. The building did not have a sprinkler system and did not have true firewalls between each business. However, firefighters said they often do not see true firewalls.
"A true firewall will go all the way through the attic space and through the roof," said Battalion Chief Stuart Grant, Dallas Fire-Rescue. "And this building did not have those. What they had was party walls that separated the businesses. So, the attic space ran from end wall to end wall ... So, once that fire hit the attic space, it was free to travel all the way to the end."
In a fire report obtained by News 8, inspectors found 17 hazards, as recently as January, inside Tirelli's restaurant.
The violations included misplaced fire extinguishers and objects in front of an electrical panel. The restaurant was even ticketed for having outdoor gas heaters. But these are all are likely unrelated to the fire's cause.
The owner of Terilli's said the restaurant did pass a recent fire inspection on Friday.
Carr said the fire won't stand in the way of one of Lower Greenville's signature events.
"St. Patrick's Day is going to go ahead," she said.
Terilli’s, a Lower Greenville mainstay for more than 20 years, is across Goodwin Avenue from the Blue Goose restaurant and across Greenville from The Dubliner bar.
Greenville Bar and Grill's web site calls it the "oldest bar and grill in Dallas," saying it's been "in existence for 75 years." The restaurant-bar was renamed Merkow's Seafood and Steaks when Merkow purchased it in 2006. However, the site said nostalgia won out in 2007, and the new owner remodeled the restaurant and reopened it under its former name.
"My thinking now is we'll rebuild," Merkow said. "We'll be back, maybe better than ever."
He isn't alone. The owners of the other restaurants and bars said they too plan to rebuild. The owners said they also plan to have some type of presence at the upcoming St. Patrick's Day celebration.
Firefighters have been careful to try to save the historic facade, hoping it'll be one of the few things salvageable from this massive fire.
WFAA's Cynthia Vega, Jonathan Betz, Debbie Denmon and Marjorie Owens and The Dallas Morning News contributed to this report