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Inside the Tune Inn: Surviving fires, cancer, poverty (PHOTOS)

Tuesday - 6/28/2011, 4:43pm  ET

TuneInnMain.jpg
The Tune Inn staff show their appreciation for the firefighters who prevented the fire from destroying the entire bar, owner Lisa Nardelli said. The Hawk 'n' Dove restaurant next door has been feeding the Tune Inn staff for free while they rebuild. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)
  • Gallery: (16 images)

Paul D. Shinkman, wtop.com

WASHINGTON -- The Tune Inn on Capitol Hill is still reeling from last week's devastating fire that gutted the kitchen and forced it to close as the staff recovers and refits.

Owner Lisa Nardelli expects the bar will be shut down for the summer, perhaps for up to 10 weeks. But a look into the establishment that proudly proclaims itself a "dive" shows its closure stands for more than just a loss of business.

The close-knit Tune Inn community has faced tragedy before.

James Forward, a Marine veteran and Capitol Hill resident for more than 30 years, is among a half dozen "regulars" on the bar's patio Monday afternoon, undeterred by the boarded up fašade bearing the makeshift inscription, "D.C.F.D. Thanks for saving us!"

"It's a family," Forward said. "Everybody takes care of each other..."

He is interrupted by the scream of a siren as a fire engine roars past, with firemen peering out the open windows to wave solemnly toward the patrons outside.

Forward explained the bar is a favorite for local police and firefighters, many of whom happened to show up to the scene of the fire last Wednesday morning simply because that's where they head after finishing their shifts.

And those who love the establishment haven't stopped coming. Nardelli and husband Thomas Webb, a D.C. homicide detective and former military bomb dog handler for Air Force One, have opened the bar to give away beer and welcome the regulars who show up to lend a hand.

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It's sparse inside the usually crowded bar. The mounted animal heads and other quirky memorabilia that used to line the walls are only commemorated by the silhouetted markings on the paneling, distinguished by the smoke damage and decades of dust.

Bits of wood and broken glass litter the floor near the back where light pours into the kitchen still smouldering with soot and ash.

The fire created "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in damage, said Nardelli. An investigation is currently underway into the company that maintains the bar's automatic fire extinguishing equipment. Once that is complete, the owner will have to apply for permits to rebuild.

Nardelli wryly explains her interaction with the city over getting the bar back up and running. Just over two hours after the fire, called in at 7:06 a.m., she received a $200 ticket for mixing plastic and cardboard recycling in the back-alley dumpsters, which the firefighters moved to get to the blaze.

"They probably stepped around the fire trucks to give me the fine," she said. "So, yeah, I have heard from the city."

Fortunately for the rebuild, the staff on the scene of the fire was able to close the door to the back room, containing the fire to that part of the building and seemingly causing minimal structural damage.

"That old kitchen door we had, that saved us," Nardelli said, adding she plans to refinish and reinstall the door with painted flames -- a tribute to the firefighters who extinguished the blaze.

The owner, along with the many regulars who showed up to help, removed everything from the walls and put it in storage. They found a chemical solution that can remove some smoke damage from the animal heads, and sent the more delicate pieces -- a bear shot by Nardelli's grandfather, the founder, and a pheasant walking down stairs -- off to be cleaned professionally.

All of the collection is prized, Nardelli said, but she is especially happy some particular items made it through the blaze. After undergoing a medical procedure, Nardelli's father, who died from cancer five years ago, brought in the resulting picture of his colon as a joke to show an increasingly nauseated lunchtime crowd. It rested above the bar near an owl shot by her grandfather, which became the de facto trademark.

Both will return for the grand reopening.

The third generation owner also points to the "deer asses" over the bathrooms, mentioned in Esquire's writeup of the Tune Inn after earning the #39 slot in the magazine's "Best Bars in America 2011." (It beat neighbor Hawk 'n' Dove by one place.)

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Nardelli and her husband are overwhelmed by the support of those who love their bar, but this isn't the first time the community has come together in a time of need.

A fire at the home of one of the employees at a neighboring shop claimed the life of his young handicapped niece and left his family homeless. The bar held a fundraiser to gather $6,000 to help them.

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