Early Morning Fire Destroys Rainbow Lounge In Fort Worth

UPDATED | June 1, 2017 5:00 PM

By MaryAnn Martinez and Vanessa Brown | CBS11

FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – A gay bar in Fort Worth that was at the center of a controversial raid by agents with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) eight years ago has burned to the ground.

Fire crews were called out to the Rainbow Lounge just after 3 a.m. and they were still battling hot spots just before 6 a.m.

The roof caved in shortly after firefighters arrived. The first-responders said it was too late to save the bar and too dangerous to fight the flames from the inside, so they attacked the blaze from outside.

Witness Bianca Davenport Starr said, “It’s really devastating because this is like my home bar and I love this bar and now it’s completely gone.”

It was employees at the nightclub who first called the fire department after noticing smoke coming from the roof. The club had already closed for the night and no one in the group had keys to get inside.

The building’s owner, Ray Williams, didn’t learn about the fire until hours later. “I found out when I got up this morning and turned Channel 11 News on and there it was,” he said.

It was eight years ago this month when officers from the Fort Worth Police Department, there without their supervisors’ knowledge, and agents with the TABC converged on the Rainbow Lounge and began making arrests.

The Fort Worth raid happened on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York – an event that some say marked the start of the gay rights movement in the U.S.

During the 2009 raid at the Rainbow Lounge officers arrested several people for public intoxication and one man, Chad Gibson, suffered a brain injury while in custody. The violence during the raids sparked outrage from local gay rights organizations, many of which staged protests for days and weeks after the incident.

The raid drew national attention and resulted in several changes within the City of Fort Worth – including the creation of a diversity task force to improve the relationship with the gay-lesbian-bisexual and transgender community.

“It did make a big impact on Fort Worth, and the changing of our human rights and how we deal with our very diverse community several years ago,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price.

With the roof and some of the walls caved in, the nightclub is a total loss. Dennis Wall, a security guard who works in the area, said, “It’s a shocker to me. I’ve been here since 2002 and watched it all progress. We’ll see what happens from here.”

“It’s an icon,” said Jai, who only wanted to be identified by her first name. She had been a patron, supporter and done business at the Rainbow Lounge for many years.

Originally called the 651, the bar morphed from a western bar into a gay bar. It became a haven for members of the LGBT community at a time when they weren’t accepted many other places.

“Sometimes their families push them out,” said Jai. “They have nothing to do with them because or their sexual orientation or they’re trying to grasp who they are. They come here and there are so many people here that take them under their wing.”

What’s left of the Rainbow Lounge will be razed. The owner of the property says it’s too soon to say what will be built there, but they are looking at possibly building apartments there.

“That’s kind of sad because there’s a lot of history there,” said patron Michael Malone. “There’s a lot of things that happened there. Another gay place leaving the city, and rhere’s not much in Fort Worth.”

The exact cause of the fire is under investigation, but late Thursday morning firefighters said problems with an ice maker may have sparked the blaze.

No one was injured.

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