Around 4 a.m. on Sunday, September 4, some bad wiring sparked a blaze inside one of St. Louis' most beloved gay bars, the Loading Zone. Owner Mark Erney was out of town, and woke to 22 missed calls alerting him to the blaze.
The Loading Zone was the only functioning business in that particular building; two spaces that had stood empty for years were also damaged in the fire. There were no injuries, except perhaps the psychic damage Erney incurred on his four hour drive back to St. Louis from Table Rock Lake, not knowing whether he'd find anything left of the bar he calls his "baby."
"I didn't know if people were over-dramatizing the event or if it was the worst case scenario, Erney said. "I knew it was bad when one of my bartenders was like, 'Want me to stay until the Fire Department boards up the windows and doors?'...It was devastating; my own ground zero, I guess."
The structural damage is being assessed today, and Erney said it's somewhere between a big, expensive clean-up and a total loss but he "absolutely" plans to reopen, be it three weeks or three months from now -- the only thing he's sure about is that he wants it back open as soon as humanly possible. The fire took him by surprise because the Loading Zone doesn't even have a kitchen.
"It wasn't like we did anything wrong, it was entirely a building issue. There were no bad practicies, all of our focus is on liabilities from a liquor standpoint."
As a result of the fire, the bar had to relocate its long running, extraordinarily popular Showtunes Tuesday event to Erney's other bar, Erney's 32 in the Grove. He posted a sign on the door directing patrons to the new location, and he said the transition of support and the turn-out was "remarkable;" possibly the biggest crowd Showtunes Tuesday has ever drawn. Just yesterday, Erney received 22 emails from customers requesting that he doesn't make it a "really nice" place in the rebuild, and keeps it as comfortable and casual as ever.
Sam Luedde frequents the Loading Zone a few times a week, and has been doing so for years. Luedde works in fine dining, and said when he clocks out, he wants a level of service he can only find at one of Mark Erney's bars.
"If the Loading Zone was a sweet hot gentleman, I'd make love to it. It's my home away from home, and by that I mean my home is not my home, because the Loading Zone is my home."