Updated 09/10/2010 09:11 PM
Manhattan Five-Alarm Fire Tears Through Restaurant, Coffee Shop
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After five hours, firefighters brought under control a smoky, five-alarm restaurant fire that severely damaged two establish Murray Hill eateries early Friday morning.
Flames broke out around 12:30 a.m. and tore through the roof of Byblos Mediterranean Restaurant and the Frontier Coffee Shop on 39th Street near Third Avenue.
About 200 firefighters hustled in and were then forced out, because the roof, burdened by an air conditioning unit, caved in.
The fire was concentrated in the cockloft, a space between the ceiling and the roof.
"The biggest challenge in fighting this fire was trying to get to it. It's hidden behind the ceilings and all the duct work and everything in the restaurant," said New York City Fire Department Assistant Chief Richard Tobin. "And it was so advanced when we got to it, we didn't have enough time to get over to get lines on it. It was already sagging on us."
In all, 15 firefighters received strained muscles or other minor injuries and a couple of emergency medical technicians were also hurt.
At least a dozen apartments from nearby apartment buildings were evacuated as a precaution.
The Kougiemitros family, who established the Frontier Coffee Shop in 1974, watched their legacy crumble into ashes, but they were already making plans to rebuild.
"We've been through a lot, through the World Trade Center, through the blackouts," said Spiro Kougiemitros. "We were handing out free coffees and waters to help the community when they need it. I hope to rebuild and we do want to stay in the neighborhood."
It was welcome news to the denizens of Murray Hill, who loved the coffee shop because the staff let customers linger.
"We're all just really emotional about it. I go in there at least twice a week for my breakfast. My waiter, he doesn't even have to ask what I want," said resident Brian Haggerty.
"It's like my home, my second home. Now I lost my second home," said waiter Peter Grammatis.
Locals also regretted the loss of the Lebanese restaurant.
"It's a really nice place and everybody is nice over there. I feel bad for these people," said neighbor Hannah Aouji.
"It's an amazing restaurant, amazing Lebanese food and always live music and dancing, great people, great owners," said another local.
Third Avenue was blocked off to traffic between 36th and 41st Streets for most of the morning.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. As to why the fire was so intense, the owner's son speculated that cooking oil in either restaurant's kitchen fed the flames.