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Grill Fire

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A fire at the rear of the Harris Grill caused about $500,000 in damages. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL.
From the building's front, the fire damage isn't immediately apparent. But it's clear something is amiss at Shadyside mainstay the Harris Grill.

It's incongruous to see the usually bustling patio empty, when beautiful summer nights could sometimes mean an hour's wait for the coveted tables. From the side, though, the scorching is clear: The roof wears tarps in black and blue, windows are busted out, and the charred and blackened remains of the rickety fire escape lurch up the building's side.

Ironically enough, it was likely the fire escape that turned what might have remained a small trash fire into a three-alarm blaze.

The popular bar and restaurant caught fire on Sat., Aug. 11, while a night of revelry was in full swing. All the patrons -- reports vary from 50 to 200 people in the bar -- and employees were safely evacuated. The only injuries reported from the three-alarm fire were two firefighters with minor complaints. The report from the fire bureau says that the building and its contents suffered half a million dollars in damages. It also lists the "presence of [smoke] detectors" as "undetermined."

The blaze was confined to the office space on the third floor and the roof. The damage to the rest of the building -- the only places customers would be -- was mostly from water. The first calls about the fire were at 10:13 p.m. and the first trucks arrived three minutes later, despite another big fire nearby on Negley Avenue.

Building owner George Haritos -- who does not own the business -- says he was told that the investigation was complete and that the official cause was determined to be accidental. Haritos says he was told that the fire was started either by one of the patio's tiki torches or by fluid for the torches.

And the question of smoke alarms is moot, Haritos says. "You don't have smoke alarms in the bar business. People smoke in bars." Patrons, employees and passersby spotted the blaze and made 911 calls. And even in a smoke-detected nonsmoking bar, it wouldn't have mattered, because the fire began outside, near a patio lit by tiki torches.

"It started in a trash-can area," says business co-owner Alex Fruzynski. "It was probably started by a smoldering cigarette in a trash can."

Officially, it's yet not known what caused the fire. Pittsburgh city fire bureau investigator Bryan Marrone says that it's still under investigation, so he can't reveal much. An investigation doesn't necessarily indicate that a fire is suspicious, though -- it's undertaken at the discretion of the responding commander. Marrone does say that the fire began outside the building. He says he has "no idea" if fire-detection systems in the building were sufficient.

"We know for certain that the old dry-rotted fire escape carried it up to the third floor or it would have been self-contained," says Fruzynski. "Once the third floor caught, it was like a torch." All four of the business' owners -- Fruzynski, his wife, Dana, Rodney Swartz and Leslie Donovan -- say the fire escape had troubled them in the past, adding that was rickety and unsafe.

"We've been worried about that fire escape," says Fruzynski. "We complained to our landlord numerous times. It was like the emperor was wearing no clothes. Our landlord did not fix it."

To the best of his understanding, says building owner Haritos, the wooden fire escape was legal, and had been in place since he inherited the structure from his parents, Gus and Helen Haritos, in 2003. However, he says, he won't be rebuilding the fire escape in wood.

Wooden fire escapes are legal in certain situations, says city Bureau of Building Inspection engineer Sergei Matveiev. "They are allowed to be made out of what the building is of." Buildings of type 1 and 2 -- for instance, high-rises of steel and concrete -- must have fire escapes made of non-combustible material. "Once you get into types 3, 4 and 5, those do allow combustible materials to be present," Matveiev says. A three-story brick-and-wood restaurant, he says, is likely of the latter three types.

"I'm trying to maintain an optimism," says Fruzynski. But, he allows, "I've shed a few tears."

"I had the nausea and the hopelessness, the despair and the weeping and gnashing of teeth," adds Swartz, who says a portion of his collection of flashy sneakers had been housed in the destroyed office, as were Fruzynski's dress shirts. "I can't imagine someone having a home fire."

The four owners are gathered on Swartz's Homewood veranda, sipping cocktails and chatting about seeing the business they've nurtured over three years go up in flames. The four of them were out of town at a play when the fire began, and shared an anxious ride back into the city when their cell phones brought the news.

For the moment, they seem OK, but they admit it's minute by minute.

"I don't know how to deal with it except bitter sarcasm," jokes Swartz.

"The biggest sense of loss I have is not the property or the income, it's the sense of family," says Fruzynski, adding that other restaurants, notably Big Burrito group establishments, have done a great job of absorbing their 40 employees.

"Our employees were just invested," adds Dana Fruzynski. "We felt like we lost a baby when the Harris Grill went up."

Swartz, Donovan and Alex Fruzynski had all worked for the Big Burrito restaurant group and split off to reopen the Harris Grill -- located on Ellsworth Avenue since 1963 -- in 2004. "We bought industrial-strength rakes to clean the tumbleweeds out," says Swartz of their less-than-bustling Dec. 20, 2004 opening. But then their friends came, and they brought friends, and the Grill became a destination.

"They took a bar that was really kind of 'eh' and made it into a place you want to be," says Lindsay Patross, who'd been a regular there. She wrote about the Harris' infamous Bacon Night on her blog I Heart Pittsburgh, and had held and attended events there for political campaigns, Progress Pittsburgh and the League of Young Voters. "It's not a chain, it's not the South Side. You feel comfortable going there." Patross says she was driving down Ellsworth the night the fire happened, and posted some cell-phone photos on Metroblogging Pittsburgh -- www.pittsburgh.metblogs.com, the Pittsburgh section of a worldwide collective blogging project.

"I almost cried!" says Kevin Kean, general manager of the nearby 5801 Video Lounge, who was in his bar when the fire happened. "It's a huge loss to the block, to Shadyside. Because we're all a big happy dysfunctional family, we were worried about their employees." He estimates that between 50 and 70 percent of the Harris' 40 employees have found jobs at other bars and restaurants.

Across the street from the Harris Grill, at the Elbow Room, general manager J.T. Campbell had also been behind the bar, watching the fire. "The way Ellsworth works is a community," he says, noting that business at his bar has been up about 25 percent since the fire. He says he's grateful that the Ellsworth Street Fair, which normally would have been taking place the night of the fire, had been pushed back. "It would have been chaos."

The owners say they hope to reopen with a bash on Groundhog Day -- it'll give them enough time to clean up and rebuild, and the bar has had parties for the prognosticating rodent in the past. (Building owner Haritos says he figures they can open even before then.) Insurance money should go a long way toward rebuilding, the bar's owners say. And much of the distinctive art in the restaurant survived -- the Rick Bach murals of monks and nuns making and drinking beer are mostly fine, says Donovan.

And rest assured that Kisses, the smooching urinal in the men's room, is just fine.

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