Chesterton Tribune

Photo: Fire destroys Ruge and Sons meats

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Fire at Ruge’s demands huge response: The massive fire which ravaged Ruge and Sons Meat, at 887 N 100W in Liberty Township, Tuesday night demanded mutual aid from area fire departments. At least 13 departments responded to assist Liberty Fire Department at the scene; providing tanker trucks, hoses and firefighters. Ruge’s lies in ruins today, after firefighters were forced to pull down roofs and walls to bring the blaze under control. The cause of the fire is not yet known. Here some of the many trucks which were brought to the site can be seen, with the Ruge structure in the background. (Photo provided by Jack Turner)

 

By KEVIN NEVERS

Ruge & Sons Meat of Liberty Township, an institution in Duneland for 56 years, burned to the ground Tuesday night, in what’s being described as one of the worst fires in Duneland in years.

The Liberty Township Volunteer Fire Department, assisted by at least 13 other departments, battled the blaze for 12 hours, hampered in their efforts not only by the harsh weather—which caused vital equipment to freeze—but by a lack of hydrants at the scene. Water, an estimated 100,000 gallons of it, had to be transported in by a fleet of tankers requisitioned from two counties.

Liberty Township firefighter Ray Wesley, the first on the scene around 9:30 p.m., said that the origin of the fire appeared to be on the south side of the building, in the area of the kill and butcher rooms, and that at that point it didn’t appear to have spread beyond. Early on firefighters did venture into the building, he said, but when the blaze spread to the attic and along the whole length of the business they pulled out.

“The one rule we have is you don’t kill firemen,” said Jim Branham, head of the Porter County Fire Investigation Strike Team. So almost from the start the firefighters were forced back on their heels with a “defensive attack”: knock the fire down, keep it from spreading.

Frigid temperatures, besides making the job miserable for the firefighters, played havoc with equipment, Wesley said. “A lot of stuff froze. Valves on pumps froze. Hoses froze. Nozzles froze. Firefighters froze.”

The biggest challenge, however, was a lack of water. Tankers from departments throughout Porter and LaPorte counties, filling from hydrants at Chesterton High School on 11th Street and the Fitness Barn on U.S. Highway 6, shuttled to and from the scene at 887 N 100W, dumping their loads into plastic reservoirs, then leaving for another fill. A neighbor, Jack Turner, told the Chesterton Tribune that the coordination among the firefighters from the various departments was “amazing.”

“So many people working hand-in-hand together,” he said.

The often expanded and re-modeled building itself also complicated matters. “There was a plethora of different materials of different ages,” Branham said, from the original heavy wooden frame to masonry added years later. There were also two or three roofs and false ceilings. “When you’re in business you don’t close the business to rip off a roof and put on a new one. You put a new roof over the old one.” The result is a lot of “dead space” which the firefighters simply couldn’t get at.

“It was a real stubborn fire,” Wesley said. “Miraculously,” he added, no one was hurt.

Branham said that FIST and the State Fire Marshall plan to meet at the site Thursday morning to consult on the investigation, but at the moment he wouldn’t speculate on the cause. “Lord knows.”

Branham did say that it could be several days before the scene is safe enough even to allow investigators inside the burned-out shell of the Ruge operation. He noted that within an hour of the LTVFD clearing the scene today around 9 a.m. firefighters were called back to extinguish a re-kindle, after a back-hoe being deployed to break up rubble exposed a hot spot.

Branham declined too to speculate on the amount of damage caused by the fire, except to say that it will be exceedingly high, when the value of the building and equipment and stock is added to the loss of business during the busiest season of the year.

Thirteen fire departments assisted the LTVFD over the course of the night: Chesterton, Porter, Burns Harbor, Beverly Shores, Valparaiso, Portage, Washington Township, Union Township, South Haven, Boone Grove, and Lake Eliza from Porter County; and Westville and Springfield Township from LaPorte County. Pine Township was on stand-by. Branham guessed that at least 100,000 gallons of water were used.

Third-generation owner Bruce Ruge spoke briefly to the Tribune at the scene this morning, but was too shaken to be able to comment on the future of Ruge & Sons Meat.

“It’s one of the most major fires in Duneland in a number of years,” said Branham, who—like so many in Duneland—is well acquainted with the Ruge family. “I knew Bruce and Bruce’s parents and his grandparents. And they’re all remarkable people.”

He added, “How many places do you get a hug from the woman behind the counter?”

 

Posted 12/4/2002