Fire!


Of all the things I’ve covered in the past, I’ve never heard more rumors spread about anything than I have about the second fire at Breitbach’s County Dining in Balltown.

Did you hear Mike Breitbach died from a heart attack just weeks after the fire? That a dryer at the restaurant caught on fire and burnt the place down? Or that an employee started the fire? Wait, it was the family themselves!?

Yeah…none of it is true. Especially the heart attack bit. Mike is very alive and kicking. He said the family’s going to make its decision “very soon” on whether to reopen the wildly popular restaurant.

I talked to him and Mike Reiger, an investigator from the restaurant’s insurance company, today about how the investigation into the fire’s cause is going. Everything they need to look at is now in Wisconsin waiting to be examined in a lab. Reiger addressed the nasty rumors that just won’t die about how the family might be linked to the disastrous second fire at the restaurant in a year.

“Through all of my interviews and everything else, I’ve found no evidence and I have absolutely no suspicions that the Breitbach family or any of their employees were involved in any way with the fire,” Reiger said. “You have no idea how much that rumor has hurt the Breitbachs.”

They haven’t been able to rule out arson as a cause, however. It could take months before they can eliminate most possibilities and find what really happened, he said.

I’ve heard enough speculation about the second fire at Breitbach’s Country Diner that my head could explode. Let’s think about this critically:

Fact #1: An explosion in the kitchen started the restaurant burning last time, although what caused the explosion wasn’t really determined. Fact #2: This was a new building. Fact #3: Balltown does not have a community water supply — people have to have a well to get water. Fact #4: You cannot maintain an affordable fire sprinkler system with a drinking water well.

Ok. So last time was probably an accident. Breitbach’s employees said it would have been nice to install a fire sprinkler system this time, but they couldn’t do it without the right water supply or a very expensive system. That isn’t negligence. And no investigators have said on the record yet whether the fire looked like arson. State fire investigator Mark Sand said there was no way to tell immediately what caused the blaze — that may take months.

I met Mike and Cindy Breitbach for the first time when I went to cover the second fire at their restaurant in Balltown. They are quite possibly the nicest people I’ve ever met. They didn’t know me, but they and two of their sons took time to talk to me the same day they lost a lot of their family heritage. And Cindy even ordered me to eat a piece of Breitbach’s blueberry pie before I left (the most excellent pie I’ve ever had, mind you).

I watched them talk to people who came from as far away as Davenport to offer their condolences and invite them into the Wine Shack next door to the smoldering heap of their restaurant, where everyone ate and talked together. There was a positive energy emanating from that overwhelming sadness. So let’s wait for some official word before we dampen that spirit with our judgement. It’s rare to find the kind of community strength and purpose that I saw in Balltown that day.

Our story about the Vinton police officer who saved three people from a raging house fire was very descriptive, but you will REALLY get a feel for what it looked like if you watch this short clip from the officer’s patrol car dash cam.

http://www.gazetteonline.com/assets/swf/vintonfire/vintonfire.html

WOW! Roger Roseberry is a brave man…

Yeah, I don’t know what I’d do. Probably cry. A lot.

When Gail Coleman got the call that her house at 100 Wilson Ave. SW was on fire, she was running errands with her 2-year-old son, Austin. He just got tubes put in his ears at the doctor, she said. They weren’t gone that long. What could have happened? “Everything was plugged in right, the toaster, the microwave…I wasn’t cooking anything…it wasn’t a cigarette because we don’t smoke in the house…I don’t know what happened!” she said as she went over and over the possibilities. Luckily, their 13-year-old son was at school, and her husband, Andrew, was also out.

Gail and Austin Coleman

She stood outside in the street clutching Austin in her arms, watching the firemen climbing around while Andrew went to get their van. Now the Colemans have to find somewhere else to stay for a little while, at least until their kitchen is fixed up. After a little while, Andrew asked Gail if she wanted a cigarette. “No, I’m all right.” Just shaken up.

(Photo: Courtney Sargent/The Gazette)