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Workers Left Jobless by Pier Fire Receive Aid

Santa Barbara: Philanthropist to pay college costs for restaurants' student employees. Others offer to help rebuild Stearns Wharf.


SANTA BARBARA — As fire investigators struggle to determine what triggered the devastating blaze at Stearns Wharf this month, community members are rallying to help the workers left jobless and to speed the arduous task of rebuilding the historic pier.

One local philanthropist has agreed to pay college costs for all the students who worked at the two restaurants destroyed in the Nov. 18 fire, the third at the pier in the last quarter-century.

Pierre Claeyssens, an 89-year-old retired architect and businessman, "has a particular spot in his heart for young people who have come on hard times," said William Stewart, an attorney and friend of Claeyssens who has helped arrange the donations.

"He's trying to figure out what he can do to help, and he figures he can at least pay for their education so that, hopefully, that won't be affected by the fire," Stewart said.

In the last few days, organizers have identified about 16 waiters and other employees at the two destroyed restaurants--Moby Dick and the Santa Barbara Shellfish Co.--who are in school. Nearly all attend either UC Santa Barbara or Santa Barbara City College, and Claeyssens plans to cover their tuition, fees and books through at least the spring of 1999, Stewart said. That could amount to tens of thousands of dollars in donations.

Al Steinman, co-owner of the Moby Dick, has never met Claeyssens but said he is overwhelmed by his generosity.

"This man is unbelievable," he said. "Not everybody would think to do that. I thought it was the most wonderful, generous gesture I've ever heard of."

Other merchants in Santa Barbara are offering jobs to some of Moby Dick's more than 70 employees, Steinman said.

And community members have begun calling the city with unsolicited donations of $50 or so to help with the pier's rebuilding, said John Bridley, the city's waterfront director.

So many would-be donors have called, in fact, that the city's finance department has assigned an employee to field the inquiries. "As small as it is, it shows the importance of the pier to this community," Bridley said.

The four-alarm blaze Nov. 18 wiped out about a quarter of the pier at its far end, spreading in a matter of minutes to engulf the two restaurants, a bait-and-tackle shop and a tourist kiosk.

It took Santa Barbara firefighters on the pier and Coast Guard boats nearly nine hours to control the blaze, which caused up to $10 million in damage.

Rebuilding the 140-yard-long stretch of the pier that collapsed or was destroyed in the fire could take a year, and it will take longer still for the businesses to be rebuilt, Bridley said.

The wooden pier, built in 1872, is considered one of the oldest on the West Coast. It has suffered a string of fires, oil spills, storm damage and other mishaps through the years.

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