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Spontaneous combustion sparks fire at restaurant

Last modified: 1/4/2011 12:00:00 AM
A fire that officials say began with the spontaneous combustion of oily rags heavily damaged a Henniker restaurant early yesterday morning, and its owners aren't sure when they'll reopen.

"It's very sad," said Jim Walsh, standing outside his wife's restaurant, Que Pasa, with their son Brendan late yesterday morning as fire officials inspected the inside of the charred wooden building at 25 Maple St., a converted barn that also houses an accountant's office.

The Walsh family got word at 12:30 a.m. that the restaurant was on fire, and when they arrived at the scene, "there were flames shooting out the window, smoke billowing everywhere," Jim Walsh said.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "That's for sure."

The fire destroyed part of the building's roof and tore through the restaurant's second floor, which the family used for food storage and office space.

But the first floor, where the kitchen and dining room are located, only had smoke and water damage, the family said.

A Henniker police officer leaving the station after his shift alerted firefighters to the blaze sometime after midnight, according to Henniker fire Chief Keith Gilbert.

Gilbert said it took about two hours to extinguish the two-alarm fire.

"We had a very good response," he said. "It took a while to knock it down."

A member of the state fire marshal's office was at the scene, and by noon officials had determined the fire was accidental, generated by the rags' spontaneous combustion, Gilbert said.

While that kind of ignition isn't uncommon, "this is the first time we've seen it in a restaurant," Gilbert said.

Spontaneous combustion occurs when a combustible material self-ignites due to chemical action of its constituents.

Gilbert said the other side of the building, which contains the office of Philip Richardson, had smoke and water damage.

Richardson, who also owns the building, could not be reached yesterday afternoon.

The Walsh family took over Que Pasa from Richardson and his wife, Donna, after Donna Richardson became ill, and May will mark the end of the family's fourth year running the restaurant: Besides Mary Walsh, the owner, Brendan Walsh works as the restaurant's chef, and her other son, also named Jim, helps manage the restaurant's operations.

Her husband, a professor at New England College, said the business venture has been meaningful for the whole family.

"It's a great opportunity to be part of the community," he said.

The restaurant has long played a role in the community, said Mary Walsh, joining her husband and sons at the scene yesterday morning to tour the building with firefighters.

She said she was surprised by the extent of the damage.

"There's just nothing," she said. "It's all melted. Everything's gone upstairs."

But Walsh - who also owns Mary's Bakery and Cafe on nearby Rush Road - described the downstairs as salvageable.

And she hopes the family will get the restaurant up and running again.

"I don't know how long it will be before we get to open," she said, "but we will."

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com.)


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