Dave Cahill was down the street from his popular Arlington pub, when an employee of Ireland’s Four Courts called with a desperate message for help Friday evening: There had been an explosion inside.
“It was sheer carnage,” Cahill said. “People are crying and people are running down the street. People are trying to get injured people out. Then, the bar went on fire.”
A day after the horrific crash which occurred around 6:45 p.m. Friday on a busy stretch of Wilson Boulevard, authorities were still trying to piece together why it happened. On Saturday, Arlington police said the driver was operating a ride-share at the time and had a passenger, but said a cause was still being investigated.
Police said nine people were taken to the hospital Friday, including the driver and passenger, but only three remained Saturday. They include two in critical condition and one in serious but stable condition. Six others have been released. Cahill said three employees and at least four bar patrons are among those hurt.
Witnesses said the crash was like a bomb being detonated. “The force of the explosion knocked people off their stools,” Cahill said. As terrible as the crash was, he said it could have been much worse. It unfolded on a Friday night in August when there were no major sports games going on, so there were only about eight patrons in the building. Cahill said weeks earlier 200 had jammed inside to watch a soccer game around the same time.
Mira Hougen, 18, a former employee at Four Courts, was driving her 15-year-old brother to work at the pub. She said her brother was never late for work, but Friday he was, and it may have saved him from serious injury.
They arrived minutes after the crash. Cahill said the car traveled about 20 feet inside the pub, coming to a stop against the host stand where Hougen said her brother would have been stationed for work. Hougen said she found a gaping hole in the front of the bright red facade of Four Courts when she pulled up. Black smoke was pouring out and it soon turned to orange flames. Police said the fire was sparked by the car catching fire.
Hougen captured the moment on video. It shows people tending to the injured lying on the sidewalk and a first responder darting through the large hole created by the car’s impact. Flames start to glow ominously inside the building. In a second video a short time later, flames can be seen licking the pub’s front and shooting upward.
Hougen said a group of older men are regulars at the pub, so she was relieved when she saw some had ambled out uninjured, including one who was leaning on a cane. “They were so shocked,” Hougen said. “The look on their faces.”
Police said the vehicle struck the pub after traveling up North Courthouse Road, which dead-ends directly in front where the road intersects with Wilson Boulevard. Hougen said a witness told her the car was moving at a good clip when it hit the bar. That account could not be confirmed with police.
Arlington firefighters managed to bring the blaze under control, but Cahill said the damage to the pub was extensive. Photos he sent show a blackened interior filled with piles of boards, twisted metal and an overturned bar stool. Cahill said the pub has yet to put a dollar figure on the losses.
Mike De Robbio, a Four Courts regular, hopped online soon after the crash and began a GoFundMe campaign that has the pub’s blessing. It had raised nearly $20,000 as of Saturday afternoon and De Robbio said donations have poured in from across the country.
De Robbio said he was compelled to help because Four Courts was such a fixture of the local community. The pub opened in 1996 and regularly hosts soccer fans and has a restaurant that serves Irish food. De Robbio said he started going to the pub in 2018 after his father died. He said it helped him reconnect with the world, and he has continued to return.
He said Four Courts is so beloved that local Democratic and Republican groups are talking of holding a joint fundraiser for it, which is notable, he said in an age of hyper-partisanship. “If someone is in Arlington for a day or has lived here for a couple of years, this is the hometown place to go,” De Robbio said of Four Courts. “At the risk of sounding cliche, this place is Cheers. Everyone knows you.”
Cahill said the crash came at a particularly tough time as the pub was just recovering from years of restrictions and reduced business related to the coronavirus pandemic. He said the business is trying to figure out how to help injured employees.
A structural engineer has deemed the building safe, but it cannot be reoccupied yet. Cahill said he has been swamped with messages from well-wishers and thanked first responders for arriving on the scene so quickly. He pledged Four Courts would reopen. “We are just processing everything,” Cahill said. “This is a bullet from the sky.”