After a fire tore through the Maple Tree Inn early Friday, the south suburban restaurant's owners vowed to rebuild the business that many regarded as a landmark in the community.
"While we are devastated emotionally by this tragedy, we want to assure everyone that no person was hurt in the fire," Maple Tree Inn co-owner Katie Orr said at a brief news conference outside the restaurant.
"Maple Tree Inn has had multiple successful chapters and there will be many more," she continued.
"Our team of employees is one of the best ever assembled in our 43 years of business and we will rebuild around them," Orr continued.
Firefighters were called to the restaurant, located in the 13300 block of Olde Western Avenue in Blue Island, at around 2:43 a.m. Friday, fire officials said.
All of the building’s residents, including the restaurant owners who live upstairs, were able to safely evacuate the building, according to Blue Island Fire Chief Dan Reda.
“The owners reported they heard a pop a little before that,” Reda said. “Their detectors started going off, which is a good thing. They made their way to the back of the building and saw fire throughout so they exited the building safely.”
Upon arrival, crews discovered flames in every part of the two-and-a-half story building, which is more than 100 years old. The crews worked for hours to knock down the bulk of the fire, officials said, though a gas line ruptured, feeding portions of the flames and presenting a difficult challenge for firefighters.
Around 20 fire departments responded to the scene, Reda said, and were awaiting the arrival of Nicor Gas to dig up the street to shut off the gas.
Two firefighters sustained minor injuries in the effort, according to fire officials: one suffered a laceration to his hand and was treated at the scene, while another was taken MetroSouth Medical Center with a lower back injury, Reda said.
“We had a lot of fire on arrival,” Reda said. “The crews did a good job of getting the bulk of it knocked down but with these older buildings, they’ve been chasing it for most of the morning.”
“It’s labor intensive,” he added. “It’s getting people in the building, opening it up and just chasing it.”
The Maple Tree Inn has been in the community since 1975, its website says, and is a second-generation, family-owned business. The building was built in 1890, with restaurant employees saying it was an old speakeasy during the Prohibition era, complete with tin ceilings and an old bar.
“It’s a staple in Blue Island,” Reda said. “It’s been here forever. Obviously it’s a shame to see any business, any resident have a fire like this – and they were actually preparing for a large event this coming weekend.”
The blaze took place just days before the restaurant was slated to host a major festival, with its website featuring an advertisement for the “Barbeque, Brews and Bluegrass Festival” on Sunday, boasting an all-you-can-eat menu, craft beer tent and live music.
Orr did not clarify if the restaurant would continue to hold the festival.
"We want to praise the firefighters' swift response and work keeping our neighboring businesses safe and attempting to preserve the character of the building," Orr said, adding that the Illinois State Fire Marshal was leading the investigation.
"It’s like a nightmare, I just wish I could wake up from it," Maple Tree Inn chef Tom Hecht said at the scene with tears in his eyes. "It's devastating. That's the only word I can think of, it's just devastating."
The cause of the fire was under investigation, officials said, and crews remained on the scene.