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New details emerge in bananas foster fire that burned restaurant patrons

PALM HARBOR — Employees of Ozona Blue restaurant, where fire from a flaming dessert spread and injured diners Saturday, cleaned up all evidence of the accident before fire investigators arrived.

And when fire officials asked what type of bottle was used to pour 151-proof rum on the dessert, restaurant employees couldn't tell them.

"We asked them what type of bottle it was in, and they said they didn't know," said Palm Harbor Fire Rescue spokeswoman Liz Monforti. "When we got there, everything was gone."

Those details were in an investigative report released by the fire department Wednesday. The report said the fire was caused when a server poured 151-proof rum into an already flaming pan.

Recipes caution that liquor used in flambe recipes should not be poured straight from the liquor bottle, but from a separate cup, ladle or smaller bottle so flames can't travel back into the larger bottle and fuel the fire.

According to witness Nick Salzer, that's exactly what happened at the restaurant at 125 Orange St. N Saturday night. Salzer told investigators he saw the flame travel back into the "liquor bottle" of rum and create "an explosion of fire," the report said.

Salzer, a cook at the restaurant, saw the flames and went to the aid of 25-year-old Katie Hudgins, whose clothing was ignited by the fire. Hudgins, an elementary school teacher from Dunedin, has third-degree burns and is being treated in the Tampa General Hospital burn unit.

Three of her four dining companions had less serious injuries.

In a statement to investigators, Hudgins' fiance, 25-year-old James Rogers, wrote that "alcohol from bottles was poured in skillet as it was on fire, fire shot up and surprised waiter and he pulled bottles back sprayed alcohol on people."

Server Ian Monsalvo, 28, was preparing a double order of bananas foster on a cart next to the diners' table when the fire erupted.

A kitchen manager interviewed by fire officials after the incident, Brad Wurley, said servers are not supposed to make more than one order of bananas foster at a time.

Monsalvo told investigators he had added triple sec (an orange-flavored liqueur) and banana liquor to the pan, when some of the liquid escaped over the edge of the pan and flamed. Monsalvo then added the rum and "it went off," he told investigators.

The fire caught the dessert cart and the table on fire, according to witnesses.

Monsalvo said he tried to help one of the women put out the flames on her, but doesn't remember anything after that. It appears that woman was Hudgins, who was sitting next to the server.

Hudgins was at the restaurant that night with her fiance and his parents, Patricia Rogers, 56, and Raymond Rogers, 60. They were joined by close family friend Jacquelyn Williams, 58, of Tampa. Patricia and Raymond Rogers were in town from Windermere, near Orlando, for the Dunedin Triathlon on Sunday.

Patricia Rogers was hospitalized for treatment of respiratory burns and later discharged. James Rogers and Jacquelyn Williams suffered minor burns. Raymond Rogers was not injured.

Patricia Rogers' brother, Tom George, said Hudgins remains sedated in the hospital. Doctors don't know when she'll be able to leave. Her fiance, his legs bandaged, has not left her bedside, George said.

"She's a fighter," he said. "She is doing exceptionally well, given the condition."

Hudgins, he said, moved from Naples to take a teaching job at Dunedin Elementary School this school year. Principal Kathy Brickley said Hudgins had a "fabulous first year" and was told last week that she will be reappointed to teach first grade next year.

"The energy, determination and always positive aura that she exudes is exactly what students need," Brickley wrote to the Times in an e-mail. "And that is what will help her through this difficult time."

Ozona Blue opened in 2006 in the Home Port Marina, a small harbor on Smith Bayou. Owners Debbie and Chris Fragale also own City Fish in Oldsmar and formerly owned the defunct Ballyhoo Grill in Tarpon Springs.

Debbie Fragale did not return calls from a reporter Wednesday.

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or 727-445-4157.

New details emerge in bananas foster fire that burned restaurant patrons 06/15/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 11:58pm]

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