Then, around Thanksgiving, 1995...
Local Pub Suffers Damage in Nov. Fire
Owner Hopes to Re-open O'Keefe's by January
By Ann King Turley, Correspondent
Andrew O'Keefe walked up to the sparkling white building with the gleaming green shamrock trim and put his key in the lock just as he had done hundreds of times over the last nine years. It was Wednesday, November 22.
He barely sensed the slight rush of air moving inward, past him, as he opened, the heavy door. As the air pressure equalized and his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see and smell the smoke.
A wave of fear washed over him. While Andrew went for the fire extinguisher, a co-worker summoned the fire department. But the fire was already out. It had starved itself while. devouring oxygen in the air-tight building.
According to fire department officials, that scenario, as grim as it was, could have been catastrophically worse. Had Andrew's actions come some three to four hours earlier, the building would have exploded with his opening of the door as fire seized the oxygen it needed for fuel.
"We got lucky in a lot of ways," said Christopher O'Keefe, Andrew's brother and co-worker at O'Keefe's Irish Pub and Restaurant.
"All the kegs (in the bar area) are pressurized with nitrogen and carbon dioxide," Andrew explained. "All the fire had to do was hit the flash point."
The fire was so hot that wine bottles stored in the dining room broke. Some blew their corks, spilling their liquid contents onto the floor and thereby helping to put out the blaze. "I saw all the broken bottles and at first thought a pipe had burst," Andrew recalled. He said it took a couple of seconds for him to realize what had happened.
Christopher mused that had the fire burst the liquor bottles stored in the bar, the volatile substance would not have quelled the fire, but nourished it and brought on an explosion. The fire department confirmed O'Keefe's theory.
Sources say the fire started from an extension cord going to the cash register located almost in the center of the building. The hidden cord had become frayed by friction from a sliding drawer.
In another interesting discovery, dishes had been left soaking in the bar sink overnight. The heat melted the plastic fittings, allowing the water to drain out and help stifle the fire.
The dining room and bar area were gutted; the kitchen suffered smoke damage. The structure itself, which has a lengthy history, was not hurt. The dinner reservation book was consumed in the flames and the O'Keefe's got out a press release in an attempt to notify patrons. Volunteers are calling all of the 900 mug club members to let them know.
Owners and staff are working with contractors daily to reconstruct the interior. "People have been very supportive, coming to help," Andrew said.
The smoky smell is already gone and Christopher is confident it will once again be "a comfortable place to eat and drink."
The O'Keefes hope to re-open around Christmas or NewYear's. Andrew says the schedule is dependent on the contractors getting their work done. The phone still works so people wanting to offer help or needing information can call 343-2157.
Taking a reflective pause from his clean-up tasks, Andrew speculates that had the building burned down, they probably couldn't have rebuilt on the site due to current land development regulations.
"We love Tavares," O'Keefe said, "that's why we're here."
Labor, love and luck help Irish pub rise from ashes
0'Keefe's, a Tavares favorite, has reopened in time to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
They stood in the asphalt parking lot Thanksgiving eve, mourning their favorite restaurant. The police chief was there. So was the City Council. County commissioners, judges, retirees and patrons from all over flocked to 0'Keefe's Irish Pub and Restaurant the day it burned.
More than ruins, though, they saw charred memories. They remembered firefighters on Friday nights clanking mugs of beer like Vikings. They recall well-dressed patrons making hushed business deals over corned-beef lunches. They saw birthday guests sipping from the 3-foot-tall glass of beer.
A sparking extension cord swallowed the pub. With it went the 30-year dream of Frank O'Keefe, a father of 11 who bears a striking resemblance to Joseph Kennedy. ,
"There was nothing left of it," 0'Keefe said, "except the sickening smell."
Yet a wee bit o' Irish luck kept the building from burning to the ground: Exploding wine and beer bottles helped douse the flames.
Left hanging on a wall was the scorched green, plastic sign frozen on "116 days til St. Patrick's Day."
Today, as if leprechauns themselves were smiling on the place, the regulars will be crowding into O'Keefe's. Kegs of beer will flow. Irish ballads will crackle through the outdoor speakers. And the O'Keefe family will give thanks for a community that came together to rebuild the pub.
Thirteen years ago, the O'Keefes began putting the place together one piece at a time. Whenever a patron or family member spotted something Irish, they added it to the collection of wall mementos - everything from posters to blackthorn walking sticks from the Emerald Isle.
The mug club hung from the rafters. A patron could pay $25 for a white ceramic mug with his or her name scrawled in green paint. Owning a mug got you a $1 discount on imported beers. Regulars use up their investment in no time. Some tried to do it in one sitting.
"It's the only place you can get an Irish beer and feel some semblance of the land and its people," said Marshall Doherty, a Lady Lake farmer with an Ohio brogue.
The family dedicated a corner of the bar to paramedics and firefighters. Patches bearing insignias from emergency companies throughout the nation hung behind a plastic wall display.
O'Keefe never worried about staff. His wife, Marcia, gave birth to them.
Andrew served as chef and proprietor, studying at the New England Culinary Institute. The medal President Ronald Reagan sent him in 1984 for helping create the second inaugural cake hung framed behind glass on the wall.
The O'Keefe menu was strictly Irish: steak, potatoes and seafood. Its trademark was "boxty" potatoes - mashed spuds refried golden brown, a recipe lifted from an old Irish cookbook.
On Fridays and Saturdays, Neil Fatten belted Irish songs dating back centuries. With his strong tenor, the resident minstrel raised the roof in rebellion with fighting songs, then paralyzed the place with somber Irish ballads.
"I remember Dublin city, in the rare ould times ...."
The fire started sometime between 2 and 10:30 in the morning. Andrew swung the front door open for another business day and found the place gutted. "It was like someone stuck a knife in my heart," he said.
The bar looked as though someone had taken a bite out of it. The cash register had melted. Black soot clung to the picture frames, mugs and picture windows that looked out over Lake Dora. About 24 of the more than 900 beer mugs had been broken.
The blaze got so hot that 3-foot tall beer glasses melted to the size of shot glasses. Arriving investigators estimated the damage at $75,000.
Over in the corner, the firefighter patches laid in an inch-high puddle of spilled beer and wine on the floor.
"In all the years of firefighting, I had never lost a piece of me," said Chris Croughwell, a longtime patron who dresses as a 6-foot-5, 305-pound leprechaun every St. Patrick's Day. "It was heart wrenching."
Everyone wondered why the place didn't burn to the ground. Investigators surmised the airtight building helped starve the fire. Then they noticed something odd. The heat caused wine corks and beer caps to pop off the bottles, flooding the floor. The steam created from the heat most likely helped douse the flames, said Tavares Fire Chief Les Hallman.
Honest to Guinness.
"Somebody was looking out for the O'Keefes that night," he said.
The O'Keefes hoped to have the bar up and running by Christmas, a time when business soars with the seasonal flood of retirees.
"They hit their first snag when they couldn't reach insurance adjusters because of holiday vacations, prompting a five-week delay. Each week closed meant the loss of thousands of dollars, increasing the odds that they would never open again.
"I thought we were done," said Chris O'Keefe, the quick-witted, red-haired bartender who serves as the Sam Malone of the place. "I never thought we'd open again."
They decided to rebuild it themselves. That's when the community kicked into action.
Firefighters agreed to work on their days off, clearing the debris with picks and axes. City leaders arrived offering to expedite building permits. Longtime patrons offered money, and others, such as Croughwell, pitched in where they could, carrying out clutter and running for supplies. Andrew's cooking instructor, Dan Michaud, extended his vacation from California for an extra month just to help out.
"It restored your faith in humanity," Frank O'Keefe said.
They missed the Christmas deadline but remained undaunted. They threw a holiday party to show their appreciation. Guests arrived at the restaurant as if visiting an ailing friend in the hospital. They gazed around, mouths agape, at the once-grand lady now stripped to four bare. walls and a floor, her beams exposed.
Andrew plugged in the stereo and hooked up floodlights, casting shadows around the room. They grilled hamburgers and hot dogs in the parking lot, feeding more than 100 people. On the wall, somebody spray painted in red: "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year."
Their new deadline? St. Patrick's Day.
By February the smell of sawdust and the whir of power tools filled the room.
"Time for a cigarette break," said Bev Tomlinson, the chief waitress who stooped on her hands and knees to wipe the new beer shelves with stain. Tomlinson spent three months scrubbing the smoke-filled cloth lampshades that once hung over each dinner table. One by one, she rubbed the black soot off the hundreds of mugs, her fingers burning from Brillo pads and detergent.
In all, the family rebuilt the restaurant, creating more room with 132 sheets of birch paneling, 15 gallons of stain, six gallons of epoxy, 10 gallons of urethane, 200 feet of brass rail and "35 cartons of cigarettes," Chris said.
The new shelves hold close to 100 cases of beer and 15 cases of wine. Just in case.
They reopened last Monday with the gasp of the first beer keg being unsealed. Then, like an Olympic ceremony, they screwed on the shiny new Guinness tap.
"It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw," said Croughwell, whose help was rewarded with the first glass.
Today the place will hum much the way it did the 12 previous St. Patrick's Days. A family that refused to die has officially risen from the ashes.
"It's a tough way to renovate," Frank O'Keefe said.