The Shell Chateau Fireby: Tom Beardsley:
The Shell Chateau Restaurant was located at an ideal position on a major New York-to -Boston route in the pre-interstate highway period. Benny Hotchberg built the 'Shell' in 1936, at the junction of routes 32 and Route 6, and William Sledjeski purchased it from Hotchberg in 1942. By 1979 Sledjeski's daughter Angela Blossick owned the famous restaurant and bar. In its heyday this was Willimantic's premier nightspot with live music and ballroom dancing. Al Saba. 'Mr. Willimantic' had worked at the Shell as a singing waiter when it first opened, and he fondly recalled the tremendous crowds there for Sunday night polka dances. Also, legend had it that on one occasion during the war, singer Dick Haymes gave an impromptu performance there.
Around 20 or so in the Shell Chateau patrons were just completing their late night cocktails in the early hours of the morning of July 14 1979, when the odor of smoke was detected. A visitor to the restroom noticed flames shooting from the ceiling, and bartender Steve Byrne quickly evacuated the building. The restaurant's phone was dead, but local policeman Cliff Spinner was passing by and he radioed the Willimantic Fire Department. By the time the firemen arrived a few minutes later, the flames had spread to the upper part of the building and were shooting through the roof. As the conflagration took hold, flames leapt over 40 feet into the air and the entire Shell Chateau bar, restaurant and a convenience store was gutted. The tragic event attracted a crowd estimated at over 500.
More than one hundred firemen fought the blaze, and many traveled the short distances from adjacent towns. There were only two slight injuries -- back strains sustained by the heavily clad men fighting the blaze in the humid night air. Fire Chief Charles Monzillo told reporters that the blaze started in the building's attic. The original section of the Shell Chateau building was partially destroyed, but its recent western addition was saved. This section containing Fireside Reality's offices, Maryann's Haircraft, and Joni's Ceramic Studio, located in the west corner of the original building, received heavier damage, but studio owner Joni Healy managed to save much of her stock. The Mount Vernon Dairy Store at the east end of the building was totally destroyed. The fire fighting operation began at 1:41 am, but it was not until 4:21 am that the fire was brought under control.
The fire did not deter Joni Healy. She contacted Max Foster about her insurance, and to check if he had anything to rent. Bob Goric, the Mount Vernon store's district manager said he had no idea whether the company would locate elsewhere in Willimantic or not. Tom Riquier owned the vending machines in the restaurant's bar and grill, and he was delighted that none of his equipment, valued at $6,500, was damaged -- save for a cigarette machine in a back room. Maryann Haddad of Columbia announced that she would be open for business since the fire had not touched her business. Gene Samartino owned Fireside reality, but it did not reopen. A large hole had been knocked in the back wall of the office to assist fire fighting, and the office floors were flooded.
The Shell Chateau fire had generated two noticeable ironies. Several months previously, the 'S' in the Shell Chateau sign had fallen off, presenting passers-by with the name "Hell Chateau." This sign was soon engulfed in flames, providing a hellish vision! And it did not escape anyone's notice that the insurance company in the building had an apt name. "Fireside Reality."