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Fire claims three businesses in Rock Rapids, Iowa

Photos courtesy Kaitlin Buntjer/ photography by kaitlin A backhoe (above) was delivered to start tearing down the back side of the Sportsman's Lounge Monday afternoon in downtown Rock Rapids after fire broke out in a vacant upstairs apartment.

ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa -- The Sportsman's Lounge, an adjacent liquor store and screen printing shop in Rock Rapids stood in ruins Monday after fire broke out shortly after the noon rush in a vacant upstairs apartment in the historic downtown building.

Firefighters from Rock Rapids, George, Little Rock and Sheldon battled the blaze that began around 2 p.m. and kept emergency responders busy well into the late evening.

The lounge, which served as a gathering place for the community, lured a gathering of another kind in the afternoon heat as residents stood on the sidewalks, in the streets and under shade to watch the smoke, flames and destruction.

Dick Heidloff, a member of the Lyon County Ambulance crew, was among those handing out bottles of water to the emergency responders.

"People came out of the woodwork with water and ice," he said. Donated water and bags of ice were delivered by the local Sunshine grocery store, Dollar General, Pizza Ranch and Lewis Family Drug. Nursing homes even donated whatever ice they had available.

With afternoon temperatures in the upper 90s, and firefighters battling the blaze in full turnout gear, there was much cause for concern.

Heidloff and several other ambulance crew members said they were trying to keep the firefighters hydrated, and keep them out of the building for longer stretches to avoid heat-related injuries.

"The suits are heavy and hot, but they do protect them," he added. As of 6 p.m., only one fireman had been brought into a rig for treatment of heat exhaustion.

As bottles of water were handed out to those in need, a gathering of onlookers stood across the street from the Sportsman's Lounge, watching as firefighters sprayed water on hot spots and removed wooden window frames from the brick building.

Cindy Harr, who worked full-time at the Lounge, could hardly believe the scene that was unfolding before her.

"I was supposed to be working right now," said Harr, who had worked at the restaurant and bar off and on for the past eight years. The establishment was owned by Bob and Steph Bickerstaff.

Harr arrived at the lounge shortly after she'd heard about the fire.

"When I got here, it was full-blown flames," she said. The lunch hour had ended and there were some people in the bar when smoke was noticed coming from the ceiling. The bar was immediately evacuated, and a short time later, the entire block was evacuated as well.

"This is a really big devastation for the whole community," said Harr. "It's one of our main bars."

There are three bars in town, but the Sportsman's Lounge often provided live bands because it had the largest facility.

"We have Heritage Days in two weeks and we're supposed to have a big street dance out front," said Harr.

A little more than three years ago -- in May 2008 -- the Sportsman's Lounge was also a victim of fire. The Bickerstaffs completely remodeled the place after that, and expanded into an adjacent vacant building.

On Monday afternoon, Harr wondered what the owners would do after this latest devastation.

The lounge opened daily at 6 a.m., serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. To the locals -- and people from neighboring towns -- it was the best place to get broasted chicken. The front of the building, like so many in the community, featured beautiful murals in the windows above the liquor store.

There was no official word available Monday from either the Rock Rapids Police Department or the Lyon County Sheriff's Office regarding the cause of the fire. Harr, however, has her suspicions.

She had learned Monday that there was some suspicious activity in the apartment above the lounge Sunday. Steph Bickerstaff had stopped in and heard footsteps in the vacant living quarters. She'd called for a couple of people to come and check it out, and when they went upstairs, a pair of curtains was on fire and they could smell gasoline.

The men doused the flames with water and called the police. Then, on Monday morning, a firefighter had stopped in to check on the damage. At that time, everything appeared to be OK.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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