EAST CHICAGO -- A longtime city landmark was destroyed Wednesday when the Quarterback Club caught fire shortly after 3 a.m. and forced the evacuation of some 175 residents from the nearby Nicosia Senior Citizen Building.
The tavern, 503 W. Chicago Ave., and the adjacent Laundromat and apartments on the second floor were but a pile of smoldering rubble hours later as firefighters continued to douse hot spots throughout the day.
A strong wind out of the northeast blew the thick, black smoke over the Nicosia Senior Citizen Building immediately to the south at 4720 Railroad Ave. Firefighters, police officers and the city's Emergency Management Service helped evacuate the residents, who were bused two blocks away to Heritage Hall at Veterans Park.
None of the residents was injured as a result of the smoke, said East Chicago Fire Chief Val Gomez, who expected them to be able to return home by late afternoon once the building was ventilated.
Trapped by fire in a second-floor apartment on the northeast side of the Quarterback Club building, 25-year-old Angel Thompson safely dropped her 1-year-old son, Matteo, from a window into the arms of master firefighter George Hanna, a 23-year veteran of the department. Capt. Steve Snyder put Thompson on his shoulder and carried her out of the building, Gomez said.
Thompson and her son were treated at St. Catherine Hospital for smoke inhalation, but their injuries were not serious, according to an East Chicago police report.
The Quarterback Club, at the corner of Chicago and Railroad avenues, was engulfed in flames by the time firefighters arrived about 3:15 a.m., Gomez said.
Two East Chicago firefighters, Joe and John Villegas, owned and operated the Quarterback Club along with the rest of the building.
East Chicago firefighters, assisted by the Hammond and Gary fire departments, took an exterior attack, deploying two aerial trucks and several engines.
The effort managed to save a two-story building next door at 505 W. Chicago Ave.
District Fire Chief Roberto Martinez said it took about 30 firefighters approximately 45 minutes to "knock down" the blaze.
There was no other damage to surrounding buildings, such as the Salvation Army headquarters and three auto dealerships.
Two cars, including one belonging to Thompson, were damaged when a wall collapsed, police said.
Joe Villegas said he and his bartender did not detect any smoke when they closed up and left the Quarterback Club at 3:05 a.m. He said he was received a call about the fire at 3:45 a.m., but he was not allowed to fight it himself for reasons of liability and conflict of interest.
"I asked them to let me go inside and get some of my stuff," he said. "I told them, 'I know that place like the back of my hand.'" Instead, he could only watch helplessly as the building burned.
"It was the worst feeling in the world," he said, adding that fellow firefighters were able to salvage the tavern's safe.
Joe Villegas said he and his brother purchased the building in November 1995 from former owner Dan McArdle. John Villegas was out of town.
"I talked to him," he said. "He hardly said three words. I think he's in shock."
Gomez said the intensity of the fire will make it difficult to determine the exact cause of the blaze and where it started.
"With a fire like this, stopping the spread to surrounding buildings becomes the primary concern," Gomez said. "We knew we wouldn't be able to save it."
Gomez was unaware of any concerns with hazardous materials, but said there was a large amount of ammunition stored somewhere inside the building that accounted for the loud popping noises that could be heard. He said he had no idea why there would be ammunition in the building.
East Chicago police assisted with the evacuation, rerouted traffic and closed off local streets, including Chicago Avenue from Indianapolis Boulevard to Kennedy Avenue.
"We tripled our normal manpower," Police Chief Frank Alcala said.
Mayor Robert Pastrick was at the scene at 5:30 a.m., witnesses said.
Mike McKay said the smoke steered clear of his auto sales lot across the street but lamented the loss of an establishment at which he tended bar more than 35 years ago.
"It was a nice place, and nice people ran it," he said. "There wasn't any trouble there."
Lee Davis, watching the activity with McKay from his office at Clark Material Handling, 524 W. Chicago Ave., said the fire was reminiscent of a blaze about two years ago that claimed the My House tavern on Railroad Avenue where he had tended bar.
"Now, another one goes down," Davis said. "What's going on around here?"
Joe Villegas estimated the Quarterback Club building was at least 85 years old, and said he hoped his fire insurance was sufficient to rebuild it.