A brick wall is down, the bar and foot rail are pushed in and bent, and an iconic 24-hour-business is closed for the first time since Hurricane Sandy after an SUV crashed into Atlantic City's Irish Pub Sunday afternoon. Police are now investigating why the SUV crashed through the wall next to the pub’s front door on St. James Place – and the pub’s surveillance video may hold the key.
Pub owner Cathy Burke said that a man who appeared to be intoxicated was refused service by the bartender, Jack Dziegrenuk, shortly before 2:30 p.m.
After that, “He takes his jacket off, puts it on stool, then walks into the bathroom,” Dziegrenuk said. “(Then) he starts putting his jacket on, so I thought 'This will be easy on me.' He looked at me, smiled and waved” as he walked out the door.
A few minutes later, there was a “jaw-dropping loud” crash as an SUV came through the wall next to the door.
“It was like an explosion,” Burke said. “I thought, ‘Dear God, don’t let it be gas.’”
One man who had been sitting at the bar, right where the crash took place, “had just gotten up to use the men’s room,” Burke said.
Fire Chief Dennis Brooks said one patron suffered a minor injury, but refused treatment at the scene. The driver also refused treatment and was being questioned by police.
The surveillance video, viewed by the Press, shows the driver leaving the bar and slowly walking out into the street before getting into the SUV, parked right outside the door on St. James Place.
According to the video, the SUV was driven up St. James toward the Boardwalk and made a left turn into the large parking lot across from the Pub. It turned left again and appeared to speed through the lot before turning right, away from the pub and out of range of the camera.
After making a large circle, the SUV suddenly appeared as it moved in a straight line toward the Pub – out of the lot, into the street and into the building. The SUV then started to reverse and pull out of the building before more people begin to appear, running towards the scene.
The crash took out a main wall that supports the deck above the bar, Brooks said.
"We want to make sure the building is stable before we leave," the chief said Sunday.
The city engineer and Office of Emergency Management Chief Tom Foley also were on the scene. The Irish Pub also had its own plumbers, technicians and carpenters working on repairing the damage, including temporarily shoring up the hole with wood.
Burke said this is the first time the 24-hour pub has closed since it was shut down for a week following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. While the bar is closed for safety reasons, the rooms on the second floor will remain open because they were not impacted.
Burke said that she expected the pub to be closed for only a little while.
“Our structural engineer controls (that)," Burke said. "It should only be a matter of days. We just want to make sure everything is cleaned up."
Burke has owned the pub since purchasing it with her husband, Richard, in 1972. The six-story brick building was known as the Elwood Hotel when it was built in the early 1900s. It later became a speakeasy and dance hall during Prohibition, complete with a secret staircase and a trap door hidden under carpeting.
After the crash, the pub’s century-old cherrywood bar appeared to have been pushed in slightly at the base, and its metal guardrail was bent.
Some of the classic artwork, photographs and posters that had once lined the wall where the crash took place were piled off to the side.
Summing up the strange turn of events, Burke could only turn to the set-up to the old joke.
“A man walks into a bar…” she said.
Staff writer Lynda Cohen contributed to this report.