A natural gas-fueled fire burned for more than three hours at an iconic downtown St. Charles restaurant on the Fox River, causing an estimated $450,000 in damage to the building and contents Wednesday.
The box-alarm fire broke out around 5:30 p.m. at Salerno's on the Fox, 320 N. 2nd St., and burned until around 9 p.m. as crews struggled to shut off a gas line that had ignited.
"The volume and pressure of the gas being pushed through those pipes made for an impressive fire for a while," said St. Charles Fire Department Assistant Chief Joe Schelstreet.
Three fire department and four Nicor investigators continued worked into the night to determine what caused the fire.
"The focus right now is on the area of the gas meter," Schelstreet said. The meter was in an area on the north side of the building, outside the kitchen.
Onlookers lined a pedestrian bridge overlooking the restaurant as the downtown St. Charles staple burned Wednesday.
"I'm a little bit in shock here like everyone else in town," said onlooker Denna Wells, a St. Charles resident of more than 20-years. "It's hard to see this. They are really good people here."
The Italian restaurant has been in business since 1976, Schelstreet said.
"Salerno's is an icon in St. Charles," he said. "While we were operating there was a significant amount of people that came up to talk to the owners."
When Nicor workers arrived at 6:20 p.m. firefighters said it was too dangerous to shut off the gas at the meter, said Nicor spokesman Richard Caragol.
It wasn't until 9 p.m., after workers dug through the parking lot to reach the valve, that firefighters were able to extinguish the flames shooting from the gas line.
Schelstreet said fire officials immediately raised the fire to a box alarm once at the scene due to heavy fire and smoke.
"When I opened the door to get out of the fire station the smoke was in the parking lot," he said. The fire station is almost directly across the Fox River.
Investigators estimated the damage to the structure at $250,000 with another $200,000 to the contents due to heavy smoke and water damage throughout the restaurant.
Schelstreet said an early investigation indicated there was nothing suspicious about the blaze.
Sixteen area fire departments assisted at the scene and in covering St. Charles stations during the blaze, according to fire officials.