Holiday Blaze Closes Starlite Diner

MTAn employee surveying the damage to the Starlite Diner on Thursday after a small fire broke out in the cellar.
A Thanksgiving Day fire broke out at the Starlite Diner in central Moscow on Thursday morning as the popular American-style restaurant was preparing for an influx of patrons celebrating the U.S. national holiday.

No one was injured in the small blaze at the restaurant, near the Mayakovskaya metro station, although around 30 customers and staff were evacuated and part of the building was torn apart by firefighters who extinguished the flames, emergency officials and restaurant management said.

The fire broke out in the restaurant's cellar around 8 a.m. Thursday, and employees subsequently called firefighters after unsuccessfully trying to douse the flames on their own, said Paul O'Brien, Starlite's vice president of overseas operations.

"The smoke was too thick so they had to give up," O'Brien said.

The fire spread through the cellar, up a wall and into the kitchen, a firefighter at the scene said. Smoke poured into the restaurant, but no flames made it that far, he said.

The first sign of trouble was a blackout, said a Starlite employee standing outside the restaurant Thursday.

"First the lights went off, then the refrigerators switched off, then we smelled burning," said the employee, who asked not to be named. "Then black smoke started pouring into the kitchen. We barely had time to take our personal belongings and run."

Firefighters broke a window to put out the fire from the street, and they smashed up parts of the ceiling and the wall separating the kitchen from the restaurant while trying to uncover electrical wires that may have been smoldering, O'Brien said.

The blaze was completely extinguished by around 10 a.m., a spokesman for the Moscow branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry said.

Hours after the fire was put out, a foul stench filled the darkened restaurant as employees milled about.

Cables, pipes and electrical wiring dangled from the ceiling in one wing smashed up by firefighters.

Sparks from a decade-old electrical transformer in the cellar were thought to have caused the blaze, which engulfed a total of 40 square meters in the basement and kitchen and caused around $30,000 in damages, O'Brien said.

"For some reason the transformer just fried," said O'Brien.

Safety officials who recently inspected the premises said the transformer in question was fine, he added.

Modeled after American diners of the 1950s -- complete with that decade's memorabilia -- the restaurant, located at 16 Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa, opened in 1995 and has been a popular expat haunt ever since. Two other restaurants have since been opened near the Oktyabrskaya and Universitet metro stations, respectively.

The Mayakovskaya diner will be closed for at least a week, "and that's if everything goes right, which never happens," O'Brien said.

The other two locations were to take over the catering services offered by the damaged restaurant, including deliveries of Thanksgiving turkey dinners to expectant Americans, O'Brien said.