Marina Carbajal rushed early Wednesday morning to the east Mesa restaurant she opened 13 years ago and found flames dancing off adjacent businesses and gray smoke billowing into the dark sky.
The fire that started at Pony Express Cleaners had made its way south toward Carbajal’s Mexican Food, engulfing Show Off Hair Salon and four other businesses in the complex at 74th and Main streets. Firefighters surrounded the building, throwing waves of water at the blaze.
The fire hadn’t yet penetrated Carbajal’s restaurant on the southern corner of the singlestory structure; there was still hope that the eatery would be safe.
But the fire forged on, burning through the attic space from business to business. The roof collapsed.
Fire spokesman deputy chief Mike Dunn called it the largest commercial fire this year in Mesa and estimated losses at $2 million.
“It was raging, it was horrible,” Carbajal said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The whole corner just came down.”
The windows broke and signs fell to the ground, and the fire that began shortly before 2:30 a.m. destroyed seven businesses along a 10,000 squarefoot section of Sunvalley Plaza.
“I guess they couldn’t stop it,” said Carbajal’s nephew, Greg Carbajal. “I feel so sorry for my aunt.”
Carbajal’s, known for its family atmosphere and regular customers, had once been the anchor for the site.
No one was hurt, but the fire has left owners and employees wondering what they will now do, just days before Christmas.
Eden Garcia, a bartender and waitress at the restaurant, had just arrived to work Wednesday morning when she saw the charred remains.
“This is like, all my friends come here,” Garcia said. “I want to cry. This place is more than a job.”
The restaurant has a second location at Crismon and Baseline roads in Mesa.
Hours after the blaze was doused, smoke wafted into the morning sky. Little more than exterior walls remained at Carbajal’s, Pony Express Cleaners, A Scrappin’ Affair, Day Spa, Hairy’s Barber Shop, Show Off Hair Salon, and a Mesa Met Life office.
The fire department received the emergency call at 2:24 a.m., after a passer-by noticed smoke in the area and a police helicopter detected heat from the cleaners.
Within six minutes, a crew arrived and was eventually joined by about 100 firefighters from Mesa, Gilbert and Apache Junction.
Dunn said when the heavy roof lined with Spanish tiles began to collapse, firefighters were pulled out and took a defensive stance.
“Our plan became: Draw a line in the sand and cut it off at that fire wall,” he said.
Pollack Investments owns and manages the 110,000 square-foot strip mall, which was constructed in the 1980s. Vice president Daniel Pollack said he doesn’t know how the firm will proceed because it is awaiting a final report from fire investigators and an evaluation by insurance adjusters.
The company has owned the complex since 2005. Last summer, the strip mall underwent a $500,000 renovation.
“Before 3 o’clock this morning, it looked beautiful,” Pollack said.