FENWICK — Potential tragedy was averted this week when a fire ripped through the popular Catch 54 restaurant in Fenwick Island during the height of a summer dinner rush, but no one was injured and the establishment plans to reopen next spring.
Around 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, fire companies in Bethany Beach and Roxana responded to a reported fire at Catch 54. First arriving units reported heavy fire and smoke pouring from the restaurant’s second floor and a second alarm was called in. Firefighters from Bethany, Roxana and Ocean City and battled the blaze, which ultimately consumed much of the second floor, for nearly an hour until it was brought under control at around 9:15 p.m.
With the amount of equipment and manpower dispatched to the scene, Route 54 was closed from Coastal Highway to Route 20 for several hours until fire crews cleared around 11:15 p.m.
By Wednesday morning, the charred rafters of the building’s second floor etched an eerie reminder of the near tragedy the night before and plates of food and drinks were still visible on the tables where the evacuated patrons had left them.
Thanks to a calm and orderly evacuation, none of the hundreds of patrons or employees were injured and the building was not a total loss. Gone is the remainder of the summer season, but co-owner Matt Haley said yesterday the restaurant will be rebuilt with a target opening date next April.
“It really couldn’t have come at a worse time and the next six weeks are when the restaurant really makes it for the year, but the financial aspects of it are secondary to the people and fortunately nobody got hurt,” he said. “The staff, which is really an extension of our family, all handled the situation extremely well and got everybody out calmly and quickly. I can’t say enough about them, and I can’t say enough about the response from the fire and police departments that responded.”
Haley had high praise for Catch 54’s crew, from the management down to the rank and file.
“Even the 16- and 17-year-old boys and girls that work for us responded extremely well,” he said. “They’re all sad and hurt, but I am extremely proud of all of them. One of our 16-year-old girls said it was a horrible situation, but she felt a lot closer to her restaurant family because of it. Our people genuinely love and care what we do and this is a horrible circumstance, a disaster really, and we’ll come out better for it in the end.”
Haley said even before the flames were completely extinguished on Tuesday, support started pouring in from the business community and the restaurant’s faithful clientele for he and co-owner Bryonny Zeigler.
“It confirmed for me the community I already love and cemented for me why I live here and opened businesses in southern Delaware and the Delmarva peninsula,” he said. “Within hours, Bryonny and I received 300 to 400 emails and texts from people in the community.”
Haley said he was buoyed by the support from his colleagues.
“We got calls and texts from restaurant people from West Ocean City to Philadelphia asking what they could do to help and offering to send people to help clean up,” he said. “One of our restaurant owner friends called immediately and said ‘where do you need me and what do you want me to do.’ The business community in the area has just been phenomenal.”
The response from the business community has also eased the burden by taking on displaced Catch 54 employees. Many of the Catch 54 employees are now working in the company’s seven other restaurants in Sussex, but more than a few have been taken in by neighboring businesses.
“We’ve been able to place our employees at our restaurants and at other restaurants in the area,” he said. “The response has been amazing.”