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The Bon-Ton Tavern in Wallowa was destroyed by fire July 30. Firefighters saved the rest of the block, and members of the community lined the block to remove items from each of the businesses. (Chuck Anderson photo)
WALLOWA — When tragedy strikes it can either bring out the best or the worst in people. Last week when fire destroyed the Bon-Ton Tavern in Wallowa, the community came together to support its owners who lost everything they own and to save the rest of the businesses on the block.
Owners Roy and Dianne Dornbusch had just finished hosting a pool tournament and were baking a pizza from their next door neighbor’s restaurant, Grand Central Station, shortly after 7 p.m. when they heard something that sounded like “a blender on high,” said Dianne Dornbusch.
“Instantly we were surrounded by smoke — in five seconds,” Dianne Dornbusch said.
The couple lived in an apartment attached to the tavern and their Yorkshire Terrier, Rudy, was in the apartment. Dianne Dornbusch said she went to find the couple’s dog and when she tried to exit she couldn’t find her way out.
“I was so disoriented, I couldn’t find the front door,” she said. “I heard a voice say, ‘Come this way.’”
The voice belonged to Travis Goebel, who had been having dinner down a few doors at the Main Street Grill, Dornbusch said.
“Travis grabbed me four feet from the door and pulled me out,” Dornbusch said.
Dianne Dornbusch was taken to Wallowa Memorial Hospital where she was treated and released for smoke inhalation. Meanwhile, dozens of Wallowa’s citizens went into action to save the rest of the block as firefighters from Wallowa, Enterprise, La Grande and Joseph battled a fire that only put out evidence of smoke for more than six hours.
“We couldn’t find the fire,” Enterprise Fire Chief Paul Karvoski said. “It was so smoky — it never showed its face until 1:30 a.m.”
Wallowa Fire called for backup within 20 minutes of arriving at the fire, Karvoski said. Enterprise Fire responded with a fire engine, a rescue truck and 10 firefighters. Soon after, Joseph Fire arrived with three engines, a rescue truck and 12 firefighters — but that was still not enough. Union County responded with an aerial truck to allow firefighters to battle the blaze from above the tavern and their mobile air unit came to fill the firefighters’ air tanks.
“Thank God we had that, we were running out of air,” Karvoski said.
As the firefighters struggled to fight the fire that was hidden in the tavern’s walls, residents arrived to clear out the adjoining buildings. Grand Central Station owner Jill Mallory said when the fire started the restaurant was “a packed house.”
“I saw people running this way. I poked my head out and saw smoke billowing out,” Mallory said.
Mallory said people quickly went into action.
“What looked like looting was people gathering stuff to save it — old and young alike were grabbing stuff and helping each other,” she said. “They went right down the line. It was just incredible; it makes me feel so proud.”
Grand Central was saved, in large part, due to its brick construction. Mallory said the water to her restaurant was plumbed through the Bon-Ton and she estimated that she won’t be able to reopen for two weeks, but was grateful, nonetheless.
“The threat of losing it all was overwhelming,” Mallory said.
The Dornbuschs did lose it all, minus their lives and the life of their dog.
Thirteen years ago the couple, who had regularly visited Wallowa County from their home in Sisters to elk hunt, bought the Bon-Ton and moved to Wallowa.
“We did a lot of stuff to the bar and had a lot of wonderful people as patrons,” Roy Dornbusch said. “We just loved everybody and the place — it was a home for everybody. Now everything we’ve ever had — everything our kids and grandkids made us is gone.”
Friends rallied together and provided clothes and a place to live while they deal with insurance issues and try to decide what to do next. In the face of loss, they both said they have seen the good in their community.
“A lot of towns across the USA could take lessons from here. So many offers to help. Everything I ever owned is over there,” Roy Dornbusch said as he motioned toward the rubble that was once their business and home.
“Everything in that pile you can buy, but friends you earn. We are two lucky people.”
The couple said they won’t rebuild. Roy is 67 years old and retired and Dianne said she’ll get a job. For now, they are going to try to piece their lives back together.
“I won the last pool tournament at the Bon-Ton,” Roy Dornbusch said. “You have to have a sense of humor.”