By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer
---- — OTTUMWA — A once-popular restaurant turned dangerous eyesore has been leveled.
A heavy equipment operator, supported by several workers in hardhats, were demolishing the exposed walls of the building Tuesday morning.
In April of last year, El Rancho Grande Mexican restaurant had an electrical fire start at a lamp on the lower level. The fire department was called around midnight.
"We responded at 12:08 a.m.," said Ottumwa Fire Chief Tony Miller. "At one point, we almost had it contained. [But] around 3 a.m. the fire went through the roof."
At that point, the goal became to protect surrounding structures, Miller said; that part of downtown has buildings close to one another. There's a small grocery store, a radio station and other businesses at that corner of Jefferson and Main streets.
By the time the department packed up more than 12 hours later, the structure was a wreck. What the fire hadn't destroyed, the thousands of gallons of water had flooded.
But even with the fire extinguished, there was danger. At the time, firefighters warned that the remaining three-story walls should be avoided. The walls just didn't have enough structural support to remain standing very long. The city of Ottumwa blocked off the alley (used as a through road) behind "El Rancho," but places like the American Red Cross were within falling distance of some of the walls.
Miller said all the paperwork was finally done and the insurance company had ordered the demolition.
"I've been hearing the 'booms' all morning," said Christine Ayala, who works at the Red Cross office.
The construction workers inspired confidence in Ayala, who said that despite the smashing and breaking going on, she had no fears about bricks or front loaders coming through her office wall.
She and some other downtown neighbors were watching the demolition. Every person who stopped to watch — seven people in one 20-minute period — got their cell phones out to snap photos or video, except for one man who had a professional-looking camera.
"It was a part of history," explained Ayala. "That building has been here a long time."
The building stood for decades as a warehouse, then, with refurbishment, it served as a bar, a restaurant with southern food and, for about 10 years, a Mexican restaurant used as a gathering spot for downtown business people, families and, at times, Spanish classes from the high school trying out their language skills.
The demolition came as welcome news to safety officials.
"It's dangerous, and it looked terrible," said Miller of the burned-out ruins.
The memories, however, were good.
"We spent a lot of time here as a family," reminisced Ayala. "I hope they rebuild."
— News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark