Fire tears through restaurants in Midtown

September 10, 2010 3:51:01 PM PDT
A stubborn five-alarm fire tore through two restaurants in Murray Hill early Friday, injuring a dozen firefighters.

These were two institutions across from the governor's office, where regulars had their regular booths. Never had to read the menu, they knew it so well. Little is left of Byblos Restaurant and the frontier coffee shop.

The blaze broke out between the two restaurants, connected in one building on East 39th Street at Third Avenue, just before 1 a.m. Soon, heavy flames were shooting through the roof of Byblos, a popular Lebanese restaurant that was still open.

"We have so many regulars -- been here, 35 years," Spiro Kougiemitros said.

This co-owner has a tough time even standing here. Kougiemitros was here all night, from the time the five-alarm fire started. The roof collapsed as firefighters responded to battle the blaze, sending a heavy air conditioning unit crashing down. Firefighters found pockets of fire between the two restaurants, which are back to back, and above the kitchens. That's where firefighters say it started.

Byblos is family run. Any given time there are six people working here doing everything from welcoming customers to peeling potatoes.

"We are family run business and we treat people like family," Kougiemitros said.

All day, hungry loyal customers kept showing up: bewildered.

"I mean I came here and I saw that, what's going on here?" Zohrab Tazian, a Byblos said.

One man came for a late lunch. Originally from Beirut, he swears the Lebanese food at Byblos was just like home. Others came to see who might be there.

"Pataki, Eliot Spitzer to Mayor Bloomberg, from Liz Smith to the Kardashians have visited us," said Kougiemitros.

The owners promise to rebuild, clinging to support from good friends.

"If he does then I'll come back, I can tell you that."

Some 16 people were treated for injuries, including 12 firefighters. All of the injuries were believed to be minor. Residents of nearby buildings had to be temporarily evacuated as a precaution.

It took hours for firefighters to completely put out the flames and reopen nearby streets. The cause is under investigation, but does not appear suspicious.