(CBS) — “It’s like a nightmare.” That’s how the longtime chef of The Maple Tree Inn, one of the nation’s top Cajun/Creole restaurants, described the gut-wrenching feeling of watching his workplace go up in flames early Friday.
Tom Hecht, a chef who has worked at Maple Tree Inn for 30 years, said it was a crushing loss.
“It’s just devastating. It’s the only word I can think of, devastating,” Maple Tree Inn chef Tom Hecht said.
The fire started around 2:45 a.m. at the Louisiana-style restaurant at Old Western Avenue and Canal Street.
The second-generation owners were sleeping in their apartment above the restaurant when the fire started, and were alerted to the blaze when they heard a loud bang.
“They heard a pop earlier in the morning, right before the fire, and then a few minutes later they were awoken by their dog, and their smoke detectors going off in their residence,” Blue Island Fire Chief Dan Reda said.
Maple Tree owners Katie Orr and Erich Wennberg said they are “devastated emotionally by this tragedy,” but plan to rebuild.
“Our team of employees is one of the best ever assembled in our 43 years of business, and we will rebuild around them,” said Orr, the daughter of the restaurant’s late Founder.
Maple Tree Inn’s home-cooked Creole/Cajun cuisine helped the more than 40-year-old business earn recognition this year from Open Table as one of the top 50 Southern style restaurants in America.
The three-alarm fire that destroyed the restaurant brought at least 80 firefighters to the scene to contain the flames.
Hecht heard a radio report about a fire on Old Western Avenue early Friday morning, and he rushed over hoping it wasn’t the restaurant where he’s worked for 30 years.
“It’s like a nightmare. I wish I’d wake up from it,” he said.
Orr and her husband were not injured, but two firefighters suffered minor injuries.
Reda said one Blue Island firefighter suffered a minor back injury, and was released from the hospital by about 6:30 a.m. An update on the other firefighter’s injury was not immediately available Friday morning.
A natural gas meter was compromised by the fire, so Nicor was preparing to dig up the street to shut off an underground gas line, according to Reda.
Blue Island Mayor Domingo Vargas said it’s possible the restaurant’s famed bar, which hails from the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, might be able to be saved.
“We’re bringing the Maple Tree back,” he said.
The Illinois State Fire Marshal’s office was assisting with an investigation into the cause of the blaze.
Firefighters expected to be on the scene for several hours Friday morning to douse hot spots and waiting for Nicor to shut off the gas.