As the Lyceum Hotel in Longreach was burning last Thursday evening, its owner, Lee McCracken, was watching the shocking vision live from St George.
“It was very distressing, I’ll give you the drum,” he said.
Mr McCracken tuned into a livestream feed of the Eagle Street action on social media after a phone call from his daughter, who lives in Longreach, alerted him to the fire at the historic hotel he’s owned since 2004.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted to hear it was on fire,” he said.
“It’s solid brick – the only timber is in the doors, the verandahs, floorboards and ceilings – so there’s not much combustible material.
“I was always under the impression it was a very safe pub.”
He said he’d put 14 years of his life into the 18-room hotel, built around 1911, and it was a shock to see it go up in flames.
Mr McCracken was speaking from one of his other licenced premises, the Cobb and Co Hotel in St George, and said he’d not been able to drive to Longreach to assess the damage for himself yet due to a shortage of managers.
He said once he had been to Longreach, hopefully this week, he would be able to say whether the building was repairable, and what the future of the century-old pub might be.
He had had a lessee running it for nearly five years but dismissed him just after Easter this year.
The hotel had been closed since then while Mr McCracken undertook renovations.
“The only reason it closed was because Liquor Licensing hadn’t approved my interim licence, so I thought if I had to close it for a week, I may as well do it properly and get the renovations done,” he said.
He had planned to remove the 1970s lime green bar decor and go back to a more heritage style of furnishing.
He said the work was supposed to have been completed but his builder had been admitted to hospital in Toowoomba.
He refuted the suggestion that the Lyceum Hotel was for sale, saying that was never the case.
“I was working out my options but the main one was to put a couple in and get it operational again.”
Mr McCracken was concerned that the building had been broken into while he had had it closed.
“A week before the fire, police contacted me to say there’d been a break-in,” he said.
“Stuff was missing and doors were unlocked that shouldn’t have been.
“I went up to Longreach to secure it all.
“I’ve been to Longreach five times in the last eight weeks and windows have been opened and things weren’t right.”
Police put out a call after the fire for witnesses who may have seen anything, to help them determine the cause.
Inspector, Mark Henderson, said on Monday they had finished with the site and had handed it over to the insurance company, whose investigator had arrived on Sunday.
“We have taken some samples from the scene,” he said.
Mr Henderson also said Eagle Street would remain partially closed until engineers had examined the integrity of the facades.
Losing one of the town’s heritage landmarks was a tragedy, according to Longreach Regional Council mayor, Ed Warren.
“They are synonymous with western Queensland and they do seem to be under threat,” he said. “It was a significant landmark for the town, but whether it’s rebuilt or sold, something will come in its place.”
Cr Warren said because the hotel hadn’t been operating for a couple of months, the fire may not be as harmful to the town’s morale as it could have been, because people were used to the fact that the doors were shut.
He paid tribute to the local “firies” for their work, saying there had been minimal damage to neighbouring businesses, and that it had happened at around 8pm when there were still people out on the streets.