BY BLAKE HEMPSTEAD
At 8 p.m. Monday night, rumors started swirling. Then with social media posts the evidence was clear – the iconic and historic Club Moderne was ablaze.
As fast as the news spread, more and more live video feeds on Facebook began to pop up. The fire soon morphed into an unstoppable force ripping through the roof that hauntingly traveled from the north end to the south, then back.
The Anaconda-Deer Lodge County fire department was on scene within minutes, and began attacking the structure from all directions. A ladder truck was steadily dumping water on the top of the Club while firefighters were on foot.
“I haven’t gone through all of the numbers yet, but I know at one time we were over 17,000 gallons per minute,” said ADLC Fire Chief RJ Tocher. “The fire was in the void area under the roof and above the bar, and it took us a long time to get to.”
An estimated 100,000 gallons of water was used to fight the fire, including an aerial dousing from a ladder truck that poured up to 1,000 gallons per minute on the flames shooting through the roof, not to mention the penetration of water afoot.
Tocher said the scene was very dangerous for many reasons. First, the amount of water being applied to keep the flames down on the roof was pushing the smoke into his crew inside the structure. Second, because of the surrounding residences and business that could have easily been affected.
“When you have to bring out the aerial ladder and put that type of water on a commercial building, it’s very scary,” Tocher said. “We had firefighters inside, and more on the roof making ventilation holes trying to release the heat. We had to cut through three different roofs just to get to the fire.”
Tocher also pointed out one of the firefighters was sent to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle via Life Flight due to smoke inhalation.
“The last update we had on him was he was on oxygen and doing better, which is a blessing,” he said. “It’s tough to see a firefighter go through this, but unfortunately it’s part of the job.”
Although Tocher wouldn’t speculate specifically on how the fire could have been started, initial investigations point to possibly wiring in the ceiling above the main bar or neon lights that surround the common area. One thing he would say without a doubt is they have deemed it an accident beyond anyone’s control as several witnesses were in the building when it began burning.
“We’ve determined the fire as a complete loss to the business, and it’s a sad day for Anaconda,” Tocher said solemnly. “It’s an icon, there’s no doubt about it. It’s devastating to see this, when anyone comes home to visit this is the place they go.”
Since 1886 Anaconda has been a town popularized by its taverns and restaurants. And sadly, this is the way many of the oldest buildings have met their demise. A bar listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986, Club Moderne changed ownership only twice since its established opening in 1937. The trendy speakeasy and nightclub was opened by John “Skinny” Francisco and later turned over to his nephew Jack and Kait Francisco. John and Steph Hekkel purchased the establishment in 1997.
Vatore, the eldest of two children (Thomas) said although the State Fire Marshall and Tocher consider the business a total loss, many of the sentimental and historic items that adorned the walls inside were unharmed.
“People have always told me the bar is haunted, but I never believed it. But most of the stuff that was safe from any damage was there when “Skinny” had it all those years ago,” she said. “I guess you can call the Francisco’s our guardian angels.”
She pointed to pictures in glass frames, decorative bottles, the gambling wheel that still hung behind the bar and even less notable items such as a microwave and other contents as being “fine.”
“It’s weird to see all of the damage, yet to look at the microwave and see it’s still white like nothing ever happened in here,” she said. “We think the bar itself is fine if the roof wasn’t on top of it. All of the buddy bars look like they are in good shape, too. It’s odd.”
Being the family spokesperson is difficult, but she admits her family is a little too distraught at this point to speak about the loss.
“It’s all my dad knew,” she said emotionally. “He woke up in the morning and went to the bar. He got off work and went to the bar. My mom – it’s been one of the only jobs she’s had. She’s so upset that she won’t be able to see her guys in the afternoon anymore.”
The Club Moderne was more than just a bar, it was a staple of the community. A neighborhood bar in the heart of Goosetown, there are too many memories and family stories to mention. Engagements, wedding receptions, class and family reunions, even lies and tall tales – you name it, they all happened at the Club Moderne.
“We always closed the bar on Christmas Eve so both side of my family could celebrate the holiday together,” Vatore said. “I’ve never had a Christmas Eve without this place. It was so much more than a bar, it was part of the family.”
Early thoughts are that the family will try to rebuild the business, but many hurdles remain. They are still waiting to meet with insurance providers and discuss options about moving forward.
“For now, we want to try to rebuild as long as it’s doable,” she said. “We obviously want it back.”
The Hekkles have heard from friends and family nation-wide, and that sentiment has hit them hard.
“It’s so sad right now,” Vatore said. “For all of the wonderful customers, the families, the generations who have grown up knowing that this place was so special to them, it’s touching.
“This was my families living. All of the things that I’m lucky enough to have is because of that bar. Nothing will stop my family from doing our damndest to get it back.”