Smoke detectors installed just in time as fire hits ELO building

EAST LIVERPOOL – Residents living in an apartment above a downtown business escaped injury Monday evening when smoke detectors that had been installed earlier in the day alerted them to a fire raging between the floors.

The fire department responded at 6:14 p.m. to Backdrafts Pub and Grill, 644 St. Clair Avenue, the former Oasis Cafe, after upstairs apartment resident Julie Waggoner heard a smoke detector activate in the hallway.

Waggoner said she opened the door and saw heavy smoke in the hallway. While she gathered up her 2-year-old son, Waggoner’s boyfriend Dereck Brooks ran across the hall and kicked open the door to the apartment of her uncle, Clifford Heath, who was not home, to rescue his dog.

The fire department is located just across the street from Backdrafts and was called by someone else, Waggoner said.

“All I saw was black smoke coming from the floor, no fire,” she said.

The couple had lived in the apartment less than a month, and Waggoner said Cheryl Hinton, who fire officials said is purchasing the property on land contract from owner Sue Leon, had installed the smoke detectors just that morning and had left the business about 10 minutes before she heard the detector activate.

Assistant fire Chief Jeff Kreefer said last night that the business was closed when the three firefighters on duty arrived on the scene, and they had to break out the front door to gain entrance.

A second alarm was called, bringing out an additional three firefighters.

They encountered heavy smoke at the rear of the business and found a fire burning above the men’s restroom in a “dead space” about four feet between the ceiling and the floor of the apartment above.

It had actually burned through a water line, which was helping to extinguish the blaze, according to Kreefer.

The smoke Waggoner saw was coming into the upstairs hallway through an old register, and firefighters had to enlarge the wall to extinguish the fire there.

“The only damage upstairs was in the hallway,” Kreefer said.

Kreefer spent considerable time investigating at the business and said the blaze started near an old air conditioner in the dead space which no longer was operational.

He said the unit’s fan was sometimes turned on to circulate the air in the bar, and, although his investigation didn’t find anything obvious that indicated the fire started there, the platform on which the unit is sitting was badly charred.

Kreefer said AEP disconnected electrical service to the building both due to fire damage and to the need for electrical upgrades beyond the fire. Gas connections were also turned off, and Kreefer said it will likely be awhile before the business is reopened or the tenants can move back in.

He said the fire department arranged for the Red Cross to assist Waggoner, Brooks and Heath with alternate living arrangements.

The building is insured, and Kreefer said he expects the insurance carrier will have an investigator also looking into the cause, along with his department.