Iconic Chateau Caribbean “Gone” in Sunday Blaze
One of the oldest buildings in the Old Capital was consumed by fire on Sunday morning. Thick smoke billowed into the sky and was visible from a distance away as residents came out in numbers and watched in disbelief as a fire swept through the wooden structure of the historic colonial building. Hours later, only the rubble remained of the restaurant owned by the Liu’s. The building had particular significance to the city; it was a former hospital, the Holden Memorial where many received treatment. After its closure in1977, it became a restaurant and hotel which thrived for decades and was recognized for the consistently scrumptious food. Today, News Five’s Isani Cayetano traced the history of the iconic building that once stood in front of the Caribbean Sea on the Fort George. Here is his report.
Built in the early Twentieth Century, shipped to British Honduras from Canada, reassembled at this prime seafront location in the Fort George neighborhood and stood as an iconic landmark in the Old Capital, the Chateau Caribbean is no more. The upper flat of the concrete and wooden structure, built entirely from cedar, went up in smoke on Sunday morning.
Jim Scott, General Manager, Radisson Hotel
“I was just outside and I smelled the smoke and when I looked up I smelled just smoke, no flames. I walked out on the street and I saw Mr. Lou and his staff doing what they needed to do and I immediately woke up my neighbor and got them out and we moved the vehicles and then kind of got the Radisson prepared. And by this time now you can hear the sirens from the fire department.”
At the scene of the inferno, the responding firemen observed that the edifice was being consumed rather quickly. The symbolic timber construction had survived both the hurricanes of 1931 and 1961, before being named the Holden Memorial Hospital. Time was not in favor of the fire department.
Ted Smith, Fire Chief, National Fire Service
“On arrival, the upper section, the upstairs section of the three-storey structure was engulfed in flames. The fire department immediately went into operations and tried to extinguish the fire. As well, our Exercise Fireball was put in place and off-duty personnel were called out to the scene so that we can effectively control and extinguish the fire.”
Varying accounts suggest that personnel from the National Fire Service, notwithstanding specific constraints on the ground, did their best to save the building.
“They worked very, very hard, the fire department; but, however you look at it, it was really, really unfortunate for Mr. and Mrs. Lou because that was truly the greatest loss because they were the owners and as tourism colleagues in the industry for many, many years, it was an institution, that building. And of course, before tourism there was another institution there, and I think the Chateau Caribbean was one of the oldest buildings, was one of the oldest buildings in Belize City.”
At the time of its assembly in the early Nineteen Hundreds, the building was owned by the Biddle family and was appraised as the most expensive home built during that era. The elderly Asian couple who later owned the property has not only lost a lifelong investment, but Belize City has also lost a significant part of its colonial patrimony.
“The investigation is in its preliminary stage. I have no information about what cause the fire from the investigators [and] I will allow them to do their work and then I will be able to say, based on the information from them, what may have caused the fire. At this time I do not know.”
Jim Scott, the general manager of the adjacent hotel and a next door neighbor, quickly summoned his staff at the Radisson and plans were set in motion to safeguard their building.
“We had to mitigate as much risk as we could for the residents, where I live and of course the Radisson Fort George. The breeze was coming out of the north, northwest. It shifted a little bit here and there, it created a ton of ash, hot flaming embers that were kind of being dispersed on the eastern front of the Radisson, by the pool and the Stone Grill. So, you know, we had a lot of staff, we called a lot of people who were at home on that Sunday and just trying to mitigate risk. Fortunately, there’s been a lot of rain in the city lately so rooftops were wet and our thatched roof and stuff, we were putting hoses up there on the roof. But it was really an unfortunate situation for all of us as neighbors. Mr. and Mrs. Lou, all the staff who worked there for so many years.”
Some of those employees, we understand, have been there since 1986. The historic location also appeared in the 1980 film Dogs of War, starring Christopher Walken. More recently it was featured as part of the Downtown Rejuvenation Project. The contention in the wake of the disaster is the timeliness of the fire department’s response.
“To be fair it took firefighters almost fifteen hours to extinguish the fire, I don’t know where you get two hours from. Our last team came in almost midnight from that scene with all these hotspots. Fires are easy to start but not easily controlled. I am sure from the footage I am seeing so far that thousands of gallons of water from both two units was being discharged consistently and the flame continued to burn vigorously and it’s just the type of fuel load, the type of structure and the fuel load. It’s a huge wooden structure, a three-storey which is used in some areas as hotel where there was a lot of Class A material to sustain a fire, to sustain a tremendous burning of fire.”
“There were a few technical glitches here and there with the fire equipment. I’m sure some of those lads they wish they had some new stuff but, you know, it’s like when the Paslow Building went up, you know, there’s only so much you could contain and I think those guys know their business better than me but you’re not just trying to contain a fire but you’re also trying to mitigate risk of other people’s businesses and residences. So they really jammed. They really jammed.”
Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.