By Darrell Todd Maurina: CNJ Staff Writer
Investigators ruled Wednesday morning that a fire at the China Star restaurant was accidental, Assistant Fire Chief Ray Westerman said.
Westerman said the fire began Sunday morning near a deep fryer where a cook, Zhang Tingfa, had been changing the oil and left the room to make a phone call.
“The investigators have found where he left something, possibly a pair of gloves or something like that, on the front of the fryer or around the fryer,” Westerman said. “When he went outside, in his absence something created a fire outside the deep fryer.”
Westerman said deep fryers using soybean oil can be risky because the oil has a low flash point, but China Star had the proper protective equipment in place — a special hood over the deep fryer designed to extinguish any fire that might start. The problem, Westerman said, is that Sunday’s fire got outside the deep fryer.
“It doesn’t appear that the fryer failed or the hood failed,” Westerman said. “We are unsure of what he may have placed on the front of the fryer unit. If you get the right elements together, it doesn’t take but a second to get a fire started.”
China Star owner Harry Wang said the cook had been employed less than a month at his restaurant and has already left Clovis to seek employment elsewhere.
“He does not remember putting a glove in that place; he has no idea what happened,” Wang said. “He was very frustrated.”
The cook, a native of mainland China who came to the United States two years ago, speaks no English. Westerman said the cook ran across the street and was able to get staff at a fast food restaurant to call 911.
“Somehow or another the people who were at the Wienerschnitzel interpreted his need and after that was done he called Harry Wang,” Westerman said.
“I don’t know how he managed to say that; he probably pointed at the smoke and the location,” Wang said.
Wang said he didn’t know yet if he would reopen the business, a popular Clovis dining spot that Wang said typically served about 150 to 200 people a day. The restaurant’s nine employees are out of work, he said.
“I do have business coverage for my business, but the former owner of China Star owns the building,” Wang said.
“I don’t have a firm plan or a good idea at this point.”
The building’s owner lives in Amarillo and could not be reached for comment.
Wang, who also works as the director of the city’s public works department, said China Star was his first venture into the restaurant business.
“I’m sure many residents of Clovis like Chinese food,” Wang said. “China Star was thriving before and it is a good business to get in.”