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Officials explain Bananas Foster fire at Palm Harbor restaurant

A couple from Windermere were dining with their son, his fiancee and a friend at the Ozona Blue Grilling Co., in Palm Harbor when their Bananas Foster dessert injured four of them Saturday.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

A couple from Windermere were dining with their son, his fiancee and a friend at the Ozona Blue Grilling Co., in Palm Harbor when their Bananas Foster dessert injured four of them Saturday.

PALM HARBOR — The fire spread quickly. Flaming rum splashed across plates and onto skin, igniting Katie Hudgins' dress, sending horrified shrieks through the dining room of Ozona Blue restaurant.

The table of five had just minutes earlier ordered dessert: two helpings of Bananas Foster, a sweet, spectacular flambe dish sauteed in butter and ignited with rum.

But as server Ian Monsalvo poured the 151-proof liquor into the pan, a sudden burst of flames erupted. Caught in the blaze was Hudgins, 25, an elementary school teacher, whose fiance's parents had invited her to dinner.

Nick Salzer, 20, an Ozona Blue chef and aspiring firefighter, raced from the kitchen, tore off Hudgins' burning dress and stomped out the flames. With others, he guided Hudgins to a couch in the lobby and covered her with a blanket as an unidentified woman frantically called 911.

"We need an ambulance right now," the woman told a dispatcher, over the sound of screaming. "She's burned really bad. . . . She's freaking out right now."

On Monday, as Hudgins was treated for third-degree burns at Tampa General Hospital, new information emerged in the uncommon case of dessert turned disaster. But questions remained about whether the restaurant could have done anything to prevent the fire.

"That's not a freak accident," said chef Demetrios Salivaras, owner of Dimitri's on the Water, in Tarpon Springs. "That's a lack of training. And using 151-proof rum is a poor management decision."

The family no doubt had expected a pleasant evening out. Patricia and Raymond Rogers were in town from Windermere, near Orlando, for the Dunedin Triathlon on Sunday. Saturday night, they invited their son, James; his fiancee, Katie Hudgins; and close friend Jacquelyn Williams to the waterfront restaurant at 125 Orange St. N.

After the fire erupted at their table, Patricia Rogers, 56, was taken to the hospital for treatment of respiratory burns. She was later discharged. James Rogers, 25, and Williams, 58, suffered minor burns, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Raymond Rogers, 60, was not injured.

Ozona Blue owner Debbie Fragale on Sunday called the fire "a terrible accident," adding that her "main concern is for the well-being of that young lady and everyone who was hurt."

She did not respond to messages on Monday. Mike Salem, a restaurant manager, said he did not want to comment.

Salzer was working at the kitchen in an "expediting line," prepping dishes for the dining room, when he saw the flames from 5 feet away and ran to the table.

An Ozona Blue employee for more than three years, he spent six months last year in the fire academy at the Southeastern Public Safety Institute at St. Petersburg College. He has two more tests to take before he is eligible for hiring at a firehouse; both are scheduled for Thursday.

When he saw the fire, he said he went into "EMT training mode."

"I was focused on removing her from the fire. . . . It was all a blur from there," he said.

Family members were hesitant to talk Monday. Williams, reached by phone as she was heading to the hospital to visit Hudgins, said only, "It was a very traumatic time for us."

Patricia Rogers' brother, Tom George, said the family was most concerned for Hudgins, a graduate of Florida Gulf Coast University and a teacher at Dunedin Elementary School.

"Until we really know what happened and understand the facts of the case, all of our thoughts and feelings right now are at the hospital," George said. "It's going to be a long road."

A fire investigators' report released Monday stated that "additional alcohol was added to the flaming contents" in the dish, sparking a "sudden burst of flames" that quickly spread.

Recipes often caution cooks to pour flammable liquor from a separate cup, instead of from the bottle. Bacardi 151 rum bottles carry a warning label that states, "Do not use this product for flaming dishes," and the spouts feature a "flame arrester" to prevent fires.

Palm Harbor Fire Rescue spokeswoman Liz Monforti said there are no local or state permitting requirements for flambeing dishes in a restaurant dining room.

Serious injuries from flambeed dishes and drinks are rare but not unprecedented.

A California woman in 1999 suffered third-degree burns when a server prepared Cherries Jubilee tableside at a steak house. A woman in London was seriously burned in 2005 when a flaming Portuguese sausage dish exploded after it was topped with rum. And a 5-year-old girl and her 8-year-old sister were burned in Arizona in 2006 when alcohol in a hollowed-out "onion volcano" was ignited at a Japanese restaurant.

Some incidents have proved deadly. In 1996, a waitress died after suffering severe burns at a Dublin wedding reception when an open liquor bottle caught fire as staff prepared a flaming Baked Alaska. And in 1979, an 81-year-old Coral Gables woman died after she was set afire by flaming Cherries Jubilee at a country club.

George said Hudgins lives in Dunedin with her fiance, who works for the Tom George Yacht Group, a yacht brokerage. Raymond Rogers works as a dental surgeon; his wife assists him as a hygienist.

"It's a tough time for everybody," George said. "It's been quite wearing. . . . We're all a little bit numb."

Times staff writers Danny Valentine, Rita Farlow and Jim Webster and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Officials explain Bananas Foster fire at Palm Harbor restaurant 06/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 12:11am]

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