SLIDELL, La. -- Shortly after 5 pm Sunday, pumper and ladder trucks raced through the streets in response to what turned out to be a full-blown 4-alarm fire in the historic Olde Towne Section of Slidell.
It didn't take long before dense black smoke that could be seen for blocks escalated into intense hundred-foot-high flames that broke through the roof and leaped into the sky at the old Minacapelli Dinner Theatre on Cousin Street.
Some years back, the dinner theatre relocated to Lindberg Drive just off I-10, but the building was converted into The Phoenix Bar. Within 30 to 45 minutes after the blaze broke out, flames spread to the entire second floor, which local residents say had been left empty. In less than a hour, even with a deluge of water being pumping into the developing carcass of the structure, the walls began crumbling and falling into the street.
Meanwhile, onlookers watched 90 years of history go up in flames.
"It's sad to see it go," said David Simmons, who watched the blaze tear through the building. "Very sad."
The 90-year-old building was originally a Jitney Jungle grocery store before becoming the Minacapelli Dinner Theatre. But after Katrina, a new owner transformed it into Club Phoenix.
"Me and my family put our life into the building," said Gilbert Valencia. "We spent six months rebuilding it after Katrina."
It took 35 firefighters and seven trucks to knock out the flames. In the process, one firefighter was hospitalized for a knee injury, though officials didn't have details on the extent of the injury.
"We certainly wanted to save what we could, but we just didn't want to put any firefighters at undue risk in order to accomplish that important mission," said St. Tammany Fire Chief Larry Hess, District One.
Firefighters said the fire was so intense that three of the buidling's four walls collapsed within an hour.
"The building not only collapsed outward, much of the walls went inward as well, and now all the fire is seated down below that. We're having to get in there, knock the walls down, unseat the fire, and get at the hotspots," said Hess.
Officials said the surrounding neighborhood had to be evacuated because of the threat of a gas explosion. They said the gas and power had since been turned off.
Another concern was making sure the fire didn't spread.
"If not for the fire department, this fire could have very well spread because all those buildings are connected," said Lionel Hicks, Slidell city councilman for District A.
Valencia believes the fire began in his building's vacant upstairs area. And he suspects it was manmade.
"I've been hearing that they saw a couple of people upstairs walking out," said Valencia. "So what can you say, you know, you feel for yourself, knowing that somebody could do this to your business because you live off it."
Meanwhile, onlookers who frequent the club were stunned.
"It's crazy," said Leland Cox. "You never think anything like this would ever happen. We all come here, I mean almost every weekend, and something like this, I don't know, I'm just, loss of words. You have no idea what to say."
Now, the owner hopes, like it's namesake, his building will rise from the ashes, and eventually be open for business once again.
Slidell Police and Fire Department officials are investigating the cause of the inferno. Arson investigators will arrive on scene once the area is safe.
Officials said the building next door also caught fire about 10 years ago.