Firefighters monitored hot spots for hours Monday after a predawn fire destroyed the Olive Garden on Atlantic Boulevard.
Dozens of Jacksonville Fire Rescue crews responded to the scene after flames were visible and heavy smoke was reported in the area. The first crews arrived just before 3 a.m. and quickly called a second alarm to get more resources to help battle the fire.
IMAGES: JFRD battles two-alarm fire
"Because of the way these buildings are constructed, firefighters went in to put the fire out but the fire was already in the attic space above their head," said JFRD Chief Martin Senterfitt. "They started seeing signs the roof was getting weak and the chief made the decision to back everybody out to protect the firefighters."
After the roof collapsed, firefighters worked to remove the windows around the building to be able to spray at the base of the fire horizontally.
"We [get] more access to the base of the flames [than] when we’re shooting it from the top," Senterfitt said. "We can hit certain areas and become blinded by the smoke. If we’re going horizontal, we can see where we’re putting the water better."
"We are extremely thankful no one was inside the restaurant at the time of the fire and we appreciate the efforts of all the first responders involved and are grateful they are all safe," Olive Garden said in a statement. "Right now, the well-being of our team members is our number one priority. With help from other Olive Garden locations as well as other Darden restaurants in Jacksonville, we will offer job placement support to all of the employees who were affected."
There are three other area Olive Garden restaurants, and other Darden restaurants that may take in the 100 employees are Red Lobster, Longhorn, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52 and Capital Grille.
"It's bad. With all this happening, it's devastating," employee Toney Barnes said. "Through the economy and everything, Olive Garden held up. It's just real heartbreaking."
A spokesman said there was no word on plans to rebuild the 24-year-old restaurant.
JFRD said the damage estimate is still being worked on but is likely $400,000 to $800,000.
Firefighters said the early stages of the investigation show the fire appears to have started in the roof and was accidental. They said there were no signs of foul play but it was still being investigated.
The restaurant was recently approved for renovations but was not being renovated at the time of the fire, a spokesman said.
Those who work nearby say it brought them business as well, and people often stopped by before getting lunch or dinner.
"I'm just wondering how business is going to go now with Olive Garden being down," said Sineth Chet, who works at a nearby cellphone repair shop. "The Regency area in general has gone downhill. The Regency Mall is like a ghost town now. But the Olive Garden was always busy."
Those who used to come to the restaurant are sad to see it go like this but say they hope to see it rise from the ashes.
"We want them to rebuild again," said Maria Sykes, who frequents the restaurant. "That's not a bad restaurant, it's a good restaurant."