EGG HARBOR CITY — The smell of charred wood and smoke hung heavy in the air Wednesday morning on Arago Street as a crew worked to shovel ash and debris after a fire destroyed Luby’s Bar.
Nadina Fornia, a regular at the bar, stood on the grass across the street, pacing as she answered phone calls from other customers who wanted to know what happened.
“We live in a small town,” said Fornia, 47. “Everybody comes here. I just want to cry.”
Police responded after 2 a.m. to the bar at Eighth Terrace for an activated fire alarm, police Sgt. Marcella Aylwin said.
No injuries were reported, Aylwin said. No one was in the bar at the time of the fire, and there were no tenants in the upstairs apartment.
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The scene was clear by about 5:30 a.m. Crews from the city, South Egg Harbor and Mullica fire companies responded.
A call to the phone number publicly listed for the bar’s owner was not immediately returned.
Fornia said she took her very first sip of alcohol in the bar, part of a city tradition for residents when they turn the legal drinking age.
“My head just can’t wrap around this,” she said, likening the bar to the one from the popular 1980s sitcom “Cheers.” “There was never a problem. Everybody loved everybody.”
Amy Ferguson, 43, stood next to Fornia, hugging her from time to time. Ferguson was a bartender at the business for 10 years, she said. She was getting ready to return to work after breaking her kneecap in June.
She called the fire “surreal” since the bar was an “institution and a staple in our lives.”
Getting a seat at the bar might take a while, Ferguson said, but only because the customers were busy saying hello and hugging each other before taking a seat. Customers regularly celebrated each other’s birthdays with cake and visited them if they were sick.
“I know to other people it’s just a bar,” Fornia said. “But it was way more than that. No one is going to get over this.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation.