Fire department officials say blaze was electrical in origin; owner not sure when or if club will reopen
FORT WORTH — Sheri Wojcik and her business partner were looking forward to celebrating one year as owners of Stampede on Oct. 1.
They were also getting ready for October’s Tarrant County Gay Pride Week, which traditionally has included several events hosted by the 30-something-year-old gay bar on South Hemphill Street.
Then, just before 2 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 10, a fire broke out in a storage area at Stampede and quickly spread to the rest of the building, causing $60,000 worth of damage.
The cause of the fire was believed to be electrical, and authorities don’t suspect any foul play.
Wojcik said the back bar at Stampede was "totally lost" and the front bar was heavily damaged in the fire.
"It’s devastating just to see everything that’s been here forever pretty much destroyed," Wojcik said by phone as she inspected the damage later Thursday morning. "We were just getting ready to celebrate our one-year anniversary buying it, and with gay Pride coming up we had a lot of activities planned."
Tarrant County Pride Week is held at the first of October.
Wojcik said she and her partner purchased the bar from James Allen last year. The bar’s name hasn’t always been Stampede; it once was called the Corral.
Wojcik said the bar was insured against fire, and the owner of the property was on her way from East Texas on Thursday to inspect the damage and try to determine if or when Stampede can be reopened.
Rumors spread briefly on the Internet Thursday morning suggesting the blaze was arson, possibly somehow related to the controversy involving the June police raid of another Fort Worth gay bar, the Rainbow Lounge.
Although they acknowledged they weren’t surprised by the rumors, Fort Worth fire officials quickly dismissed them, saying they had no reason whatsoever to believe the fire was intentionally lit.
Lt. Kent Worley, a spokesman for FWFD, said investigators believed the fire was accidental in part because it broke out in an area where there were a lot of electrical plugs.
Wojcik, the owner, said a bartender who smelled smoke and went to investigate the source heard a circuit breaker "pop" as he approached.
Worley said, "They tried to put it out and it just got away from them. It was put under control pretty quickly once we got there."
He added that he doubts the Fire Department will make a final determination about the cause.
"He’s [the investigator is] comfortable enough it’s accidental and probably electrical in nature, and that’s probably as far as it’s going to go," Worley said. "Chances are the insurance company for the bar will do that."
The Stampede was known in particular for drag performer Rhonda Mae and her Wall of Food benefit shows, although Stampede show director Mike Castlow said Thursday morning the Wall of Food shows had only recently been moved to a different bar.
"Looking at this, it’s a good thing they moved it," Castlow said as he surveyed the damage inside Stampede.
Castlow also said the bar had hosted another benefit Wednesday night, a show to raise money for the Street Outreach, an HIV prevention and education program that distributes condoms and conducts HIV testing.
"Their funding was cut, so we had decided to start having a show to raise money for them every week. Last night was the first one," Castlow said Thursday morning.
Darrell Jett, assistant manager at Stampede, said the bar was also the home bar for the Fort Worth Chapter of the Texas Gay Rodeo Association, Cowtown Leathermen and the Trinity River Bears. The Imperial Court de Fort Worth/Arlington also frequently held benefit events there.
Todd Camp, a prominent figure in the Fort Worth LGBT community, noted Thursday afternoon that the city has only six gay and lesbian bars.
"It’s just been a longtime fixture in the community, so it’s sad when anything like this happens," Camp said.
"It’s not like Dallas where one bar closes and there are 28 more."
Camp said his first thought when he drove by Stampede Thursday morning was, "I hope it wasn’t arson."
He said LGBT people in Fort Worth are a little on edge in the wake of the Rainbow Lounge raid, which has raised the profile of the community.
Since the Rainbow Lounge raid, discourse on Web sites and blogs has sometimes been hateful and threatening, he added.
"You can’t help but worry," Camp said. "People can’t just agreeably disagree anymore. It’s gotten to a new level of disagreement.
"I think people [in the LGBT community] are a little bit nervous, and I think there a lot of us here who are kind of bracing for the backlash and hoping it won’t come."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 11, 2009.