Charleston firefighters contain fire at Big John’s Tavern downtown

The fire in the apartments above Big John’s Tavern also damaged the bar on East Bay Street Monday morning.

Fire investigators are trying to pinpoint the cause of an early morning blaze Monday that damaged one of Charleston’s iconic dive bars and three second-floor apartments on East Bay Street.

The fire was reported about 6 a.m. at 251 East Bay St., home to Big John’s Tavern for the past 61 years.

Heavy flames crackled from second-floor windows when firefighters arrived about three minutes later, according to Ryan Kunitzer, a Charleston Fire Department spokesman. Due to the extent of the blaze, crews adopted a defensive posture and attacked the fire from outside until it could be knocked down. They had it under control within 30 minutes, he said.

“Crews exercised good judgment and performed as a well-practiced team,” Deputy Chief of Operations John Tippet said.

Investigators determined the fire started in one of the upstairs apartments, though the cause remains under investigation, Kunitzer said. The tenant who lived in the unit was not home at the time, he said.

A man in an adjoining apartment woke to the smell of smoke and looked around for the source, Kunitzer said. He noticed black smoke coming from a nearby unit and returned to his apartment to retrieve his cellphone and valuables before hustling down the stairs and calling 911, he said.

Fire, smoke, and heat damaged all three apartments. Big John’s Tavern also had significant heat, smoke, and water damage, Kunitzer said.

It remained unclear how long the venerable watering hole would be out of commission. Big John’s has been around since 1954, when late football great John Cannady opened the joint. It’s been a no-frills staple of the downtown bar scene ever since.

Restaurateur John Adamson, who is involved in running Big John’s, said in an email that he had little information to provide about the episode.

“All I know is that the fire started in one of the upstairs apartments and has caused extensive damage to the entire property, including Big Johns,” he said.

Owner Ryan Condon in October 2013 reclaimed control of the bar, citing concerns that his nephews were taking Big John’s in a direction inconsistent with the watering hole’s unpretentious heritage. Condon partnered with Robert Hightower and Adamson, and they spruced the place up during a months-long renovation with plans to make Big John’s a viable lunch destination.

In November, rumors began circulating that the bar was in jeopardy of closing. Hightower indicated the subject was under discussion, but Adamson said his partner was misinformed. Adamson told The Post and Courier at the time: “It’s no secret that the business hasn’t been what we wanted it to be. But we’re surviving, just not thriving.”

Monday’s early morning emergency shut down a section of East Bay Street between Hasell and Market streets for hours as crews worked to contain the blaze and extinguish hot spots. The road reopened to traffic later in the morning, but Pinckney Street will remained closed indefinitely due to structural damage from the fire, authorities said.

The American Red Cross is helping the apartment residents.

Dave Munday and Hanna Raskin contributed to this report.