An early morning fire destroyed an iconic Barrow restaurant and damaged an attached hotel on Saturday, according to North Slope Borough officials.
The Mexican restaurant, Pepe's North of the Border, is "completely gone," said Michael Shults. His mother, Fran Tate, opened the restaurant nearly 35 years ago, first serving out of a two-bedroom house, then ultimately expanding into its current, larger space connected to the Top of the World Hotel.
The hotel was "heavily smoke-damaged," and the hallway connecting it to the restaurant was demolished by local public works employees as they tried keep the flames from spreading, said Joe Dingman, assistant chief of the North Slope Borough Fire Department.
But the building did not catch fire, he said, and neither did another nearby that houses a Wells Fargo Bank branch.
No one was hurt.
In a written statement, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., which owns the hotel, said damage was still being assessed, and that the cause of the fire was unknown.
Officials and residents in Barrow said they were saddened to learn of the loss of Pepe's, a local landmark. They were also worried about the fire's effects on the local economy, since the 50-room Top of the World is the town's main hotel.
"It is going to have an impact," said North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower. "There's going to be a lot of readjusting here."
Firefighters arrived at the restaurant around 3 a.m., after getting a report of smoke in the area, Dingman said.
By the time they arrived, "it looked like it was a pretty hot fire going on inside," Dingman said.
They fought the blaze for 45 minutes, with firefighters working inside and outside the restaurant, before conditions forced them away.
"It was brutal. It just kept getting hotter and hotter," said Shults, who drove to Pepe's after getting a call from crews trying to get into the building. "They were pouring the water to it; they were trying to ventilate. They were around back, and around front, and around the side. It isn't anything they could have stopped -- it was just burning because that's what wood does."
At that point, the firefighters shifted their focus to keeping the fire from jumping to the connected hotel and nearby bank building, which Dingman said was "less than 10 feet away."
The blaze was so bad that the firefighters recruited the public works employees on front-end loaders, which drove through smoke to demolish the hallway connecting the hotel and restaurant, Dingman said.
"We didn't know if that was going to be a good tactic or not," he said. "But it turned out to save the hotel."
Tate, 83, who founded Pepe's in 1978, said in an interview that she would re-open the restaurant.
"I'm what you call a tough cookie," she said. "And they've got to deal with me, because I'm going to make another Pepe's."
Tate originally moved to Barrow to work as an electrical engineer but said she decided to stay when she was transferred to Wyoming. After two years working out of the two-bedroom house, she said she was invited to move Pepe's into the hotel, where it had been ever since.
Lyn Kidder, who wrote a book about Pepe's called "Tacos on the Tundra," said that the restaurant became a kind of town square for Barrow's 4,500 residents.
"If you wanted to know anything that was going on in town, you just had to go to Pepe's," she said. "If you were looking for somebody, they would eventually show up there. It was just really the center of the town."
Tate is currently being treated for a foot infection in Anchorage, she said. But she still talks daily with the restaurant's manager.
"My elbow is touching all the paperwork on payroll, and the IRS, and taxes and stuff," she said.
Shults put it this way: "She's been married five times, and it was the only husband she could keep."
But beyond Tate and her family, the loss will hurt the whole town of Barrow, said Brower, the North Slope mayor.
The Top of the World Hotel, she said, is where U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Sen. Mark Begich had been scheduled to stay during their visit to Barrow on Saturday. They and their staff will be moved to other accommodations.
As for Pepe's, Brower said, it was a "restaurant where families bring their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents for dinner, anniversary, wedding party dinners."
She said she empathized for Tate, and her family and workers.
"They've lost a part of themselves," she said. "We've lost a part of ourselves, in the fire."
Reach Nathaniel Herz at email@example.com or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ
Alaska Dispatch Publishing