Nick Lopata was one of about 30 people enjoying a late-night drink at Quarry House Tavern, the venerable watering hole in downtown Silver Spring, when patrons smelled smoke in the back room of the historic tavern. Someone dismissed their concerns, noting that employees had just blown out candles.
"You could still see your way out, but everybody was coughing and their eyes watering," Lopata said. "It escalated quickly.”
When the patrons and employees reached street level, they immediately saw the source of the smoke: a major fire burning through Bombay Gaylord, located above Quarry House at 8401 Georgia Ave. Pete Piringer, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, said bar patrons were the first to alert the fire department about the blaze, shortly before 1 a.m. today. Approximately 100 firefighters eventually responded to the two-alarm call.
The early-morning fire caused between $750,000 and $1 million in damages to several restaurants, including Quarry House and Bombay Gaylord, Piringer said. It also displaced about a dozen people who were living illegally above neighboring Mandarin Restaurant, which sustained minor damage. One firefighter also suffered minor burns on the hand, but was treated and released.
The office of the Montgomery County Fire Marshal declared Bombay Gaylord and Quarry House both "unsafe to occupy" after the blaze, Piringer said. Bombay Gaylord suffered most of the damage, the spokesman said. Quarry House, the pub that can trace its history to post-Prohibition Silver Spring, circa 1930s, sustained smoke and water damage; the pub also suffered structural damage from crews working to contain the blaze.
Piringer said the cause of the fire is still undetermined, but officials believe it started at Bombay Gaylord, near the back ceiling of the restaurant. Initial reports indicated it may have been an electrical fire.
On Twitter, the outpouring of grief and sympathy for the damaged establishments was palpable, particularly for the beloved Quarry House:
@MyLineIsRed not the quarry house!! I need tots! (Obv sad for Bombay folks, I'm just not a patron of theirs.)— Joy Sims (@JoySims) March 19, 2015
I've carried drum sets many times through this door. Hope I will again soon. pic.twitter.com/hWn91FOyNy— John Kelly (@JohnKelly) March 19, 2015
Gordon Banks, co-owner of Quarry House, said it was too soon to know when the tavern would reopen. He and partner Jackie Greenbaum were inspecting the smoke and water damage today. "We don’t know how deep it infiltrated the walls and all that," Banks said. "It’s going to take time to figure out how bad it is.”
If Quarry House can't reopen soon, Banks said it would re-emerge as a pop-up at Sidebar, Greenbaum's cocktail bar just a few blocks away in Silver Spring. "It won’t be gone for long, either way,” Banks promised.
The ETA on Bombay Gaylord's return remains a mystery. Calls to the Indian restaurant returned only a busy signal.
Meanwhile, the health department has already given Mandarin the green light to reopen for business, said manager Cindy Gao. Fire crews broke the front door of the restaurant, Gao said, but the place managed to start serving customers again at 2 p.m. today.
Kefa Cafe, located behind Bombay Gaylord on adjacent Bonifant Street, was working to clean up smoke damage at the sandwich and dessert shop. Co-owner Abeba Tsegaye said the smell of smoke was strong inside Kefa, and employees were just learning tricks on how to deal with the acrid aromas. When asked when Kefa might reopen, Tsegaye said, 'Only God knows."
Montgomery County officials were still investigating businesses for possible violations in connection with the fire, Piringer said. The space above the Mandarin was not zoned for residential occupancy, the spokesman said. The approximately 12 people in that space were removed to other, unknown locations. They were unharmed by the blaze, Piringer said.
The patrons at Quarry House were also unharmed, Lopata said, but only because of the quick work of the pub's staff and managers. Once they saw the smoke filling the bar, they ordered everyone out, via the front door and emergency exits.