Community ‘just heartbroken’ after vacant Ruby’s Diner reduced to ruins by fire at Seal Beach Pier

Seal Beach Pier

1906: A 6-foot-wide pier is built.

1916: The pier is widened for Joy Zone play area.

1935: A storm destroys the pier.

1939: Under a New Deal project, the pier is rebuilt.

1983: A storm washes away the middle section. Residents raise money to rebuild.

1987: Ruby’s Diner opens at the end of the pier.

1992: An electrical fire damages the pier.

2000: A 3-by-6-foot section of planking at the pier catches fire, in April, because of a discarded cigarette.

2007: In May, Seal Beach begins a four-year, $1 million project to replace the pier’s wooden planks with new hardwood.

2013: Ruby’s Diner closes in January after its lease expired.

2014: Storms caused by Hurricane Marie damage the pier, requiring the city to make repairs before the pier is structurally sound.

2015: Negotiations between Seal Beach and The Original Fish Co., which had been picked in 2014 to replace Ruby’s, fall apart in March.

2015: In October, the City Council and residents hear a report that fixing the far end of the pier to accommodate a restaurant would cost about $4 million. A restaurant owner would need to provide another $1.6 million to $2.5 million to build on the site.

SEAL BEACH – An early-morning blaze Friday at the tip of the Seal Beach Pier sent plumes of thick black smoke into the sky, destroyed a vacant restaurant and charred the beloved historic landmark that has suffered several setbacks in recent years.

“We were all just heartbroken to see flames bursting out of our beautiful pier,” Seal Beach Mayor Sandra Massa-Lavitt said Friday afternoon, hours after the blaze was extinguished.

“It’s a historic event,” Massa-Lavitt said. “And, it’s a very expensive event.”

Ironically, the City Council had intended to discuss a possible timetable for repairs to the pier – weathered both by age and 2014’s Hurricane Marie – at its meeting Monday. Now members will grapple with additional cost of repairs on top of the $4 million already discussed.

The fire started around 7:35 a.m. inside the former Ruby’s Diner, officials said. It was initially extinguished at 9:05 a.m., but flames flared up 90 minutes later because of onshore winds.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Four fireboats from the Long Beach Fire Department, two from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, one from Los Angeles City Fire Department, a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat and Seal Beach Marine Safety boat assisted firefighters on the pier, Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi said.

About 90 firefighters from OCFA, Long Beach and Huntington Beach also responded.

“We are also grateful that so many agencies came together to help us,” Massa-Lavitt said.

While firefighters were battling the blaze, a standpipe near the middle of the pier malfunctioned, causing them to rely more heavily on about 2,000 feet of hoses.

“The pier is a quarter-mile long,” OCFA Capt. Larry Kurtz said. “(Firefighters) have to lay down hose all the way to the building by hand and each of those rolls weighs about 90 pounds. It’s very taxing work.”

A firefighter suffered a dislocated right shoulder while battling the blaze and was taken to Los Alamitos Medical Center, Kurtz said.

Michael Pless Jr., one of the owners of M&M Surfing School in Seal Beach, said he was surfing when he smelled smoke.

“Do I smell something cooking?” Pless recalled thinking.

David Gillispie was surfing with Pless about 200 feet from the pier when the fire started.

“There were chunks of wood falling into the water,” Gillispie said.

Damage from the fire was contained to the restaurant site, the last 100 feet of the pier, Massa-Lavitt said.

After Ruby’s Diner closed in January 2013, the end of the pier was blocked to visitors. Ever since, the boarded-up building and locked gate have been an eyesore on the city’s scenic emblem perched above a surfers’ haven.

City officials have hoped to lure another restaurant to the location. Talks two years ago with owners of The Original Fish Co. in Los Alamitos looked promising. However, the city learned that it would first need to put $4 million into repairing the pier before a new business could begin construction.

“When we found out about the extent of the repairs needed, negotiations with the restaurant fell apart,” Massa-Lavitt said. “We are not at this time in negotiations with any business.”

Except for the area of the fire, the pier is structurally sound, Massa-Lavitt said.

“The planks are in good shape,” Massa-Lavitt said. “It’s the infrastructure that you don’t see and don’t think about that needs rehabilitation – gas lines, pipes, water lines, sewer lines.”

Authorities had planned to bring in a bulldozer to haul away debris, but instead decided to keep a crew overnight to monitor the structure.

The wooden pier, one of the longest of its kind in California, is owned by the state and maintained by Seal Beach.

Massa-Lavitt said the city does not have an estimate for the cost of the fire damage. The city insures the pier with the Joint Powers Insurance Authority.

She said she plans to hold a public meeting to share information about the disaster.

Orange County Health Agency officials were conducting water quality tests around the pier Friday, but the results were not available, said Jessica Good, the agency’s spokeswoman.

The waters around the pier remained open, she said.

OCFA and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators began examining the charred remains of the restaurant and an adjacent structure around 11:30 a.m. The buildings were smoldering and roofs had collapsed.

Earlier, as they watched the flames from the beach, locals expressed sadness and dismay over the sight.

Rachel Kuryan, who lives nearby, said some of her fondest childhood memories involve going to the Seal Beach Pier with her family.

“(Ruby’s) is where my mom would come for her birthday,” Kuryan said. “She doesn’t even like hamburgers.”

Built in 1906, the pier has endured earthquakes, storms and fires, only to rise again. In recent times, fires damaged the pier in 1992 and in 1994.

Staff writer Nancy Luna contributed to this report.

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