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OUT FRONT: Under Opal’s Battering, Loyal Tavern Workers Hold Vigil

October 6, 1995

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ The handsome hardwood bar in Pineapple Willy’s leans at a woozy angle since Opal danced through.

A walk-in cooler lies amid a jumble of broken chairs, smashed rib ovens and something like $10,000 worth of lost booze, including bottles of Jack Daniels the restaurant’s famed ribs were basted in.

Between the main dining room and Willy’s kitchen, the passageway through which waiters and waitresses used to hurry with loaded trays is now empty space, a white-sand beach showing 12 feet below the splintered floor.

The hurricane surge that punched that hole filled Pineapple Willy’s and left eddies of sand all the way to the raised dance floor, where five people scrambled to safety with the restaurant’s computers and big-screen TVs and kept vigil through the storm.

Asked why, they said simply that they care for this place, and it cares for them.

``This is like our home. You’ve got to take care of your home,″ said Peggy Hennessy, the rib manager.

``This is my future here,″ said James Higgins, the bar-restaurant’s kitchen manager. ``I wanted to save what equipment I could.″

Higgins and Hennessy are employees, not relatives of Pineapple Willy’s owner, William Buskell, and so they had no family reason to ride out the storm in this precarious perch, just 3 feet and a couple of stairsteps above the main floor awash in roiling sea water.

Still, amid the uncertainties of tropical weather, a seasonal economy and other tough hands that life at the Gulf’s edge can deal, they said they’d invested some of themselves here and couldn’t see letting that go, despite the danger.

They described the floor shaking as colossal waves pushed between the stilts beneath. They watched parts of floor torn away and an entire restroom disappear, without a single sink or toilet left behind.

Between 6:30 and 8 p.m., ``it really started getting intense. We could tell parts of the building were going down,″ said waitress Terri Eaton.

A day after the storm, the employees spoke appreciatively of bar patrons who had anonymously returned unbroken bottles of liquor washed up on the beach. They talked of friendships. They talked of Buskell’s pep-talk style of management, in which he compares himself to Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach.

``He uses the phrase he’s Vince Lombardi and we’re the team,″ Higgins said Thursday night, standing on the bar’s private pier, most of which withstood the winds and waves. ``Well, the team stood up last night and took the force.″

As the storm’s power grew before smashing ashore, Buskell said he urged his employees to evacuate. But Hennessy, Higgins and three others who were boarding up and trying to secure Pineapple Willy’s _ waitress Eaton and Buskell’s sons, Baron and Eric _ refused to leave.

``They said, no, they wanted to protect their business,″ Buskell recalled, saying he couldn’t force them to go.

Buskell and several employees who have young children eventually fled Opal for rooms Buskell found at a Holiday Inn in the relative safety of Panama City, across a bridge from this barrier island.

``I was in touch with them by cell phone until 6 o’clock, about when the floor started to cave in,″ Buskell said.

In the dim hotel lobby before power was restored, Doug and Sue Noss _ among the employees with children _ fretted about the friends left behind at Willy’s and the uncertainty Opal had introduced to their lives. She’s a waitress at the restaurant, he’s a carpenter who’s done work there.

Phone service was out to Panama City Beach and access to the island was cut off by authorities fearful of looters. The Nosses said Buskell tried repeatedly, and futilely, to reach his sons and the others through the night and into the next day.

A cord stretched from the hotel generator to a lobby TV allowed the storm refugees to view news film from a crew flying over the island. Noss said they saw severe damage in the area of Pineapple Willy’s. That didn’t surprise him. ``When we left, the waves were 10 or 12 feet,″ he said.

``Let’s go, let’s go! Let’s get out of here!″ his children, 8-year-old Doug and 6-year-old Stacey, shouted Wednesday night, Noss said.

They now know the restaurant crew is fine, but there’s uncertainty about where they’ll live and when the kids will be able to get back into their school, which is near the beach. Noss has heard that damage could keep it closed for weeks.

That, and damage to the family’s apartment, may mean they’ll have to part ways for a while _ Sue Noss returning with the children to Detroit, which the family left a year ago, her husband staying here for what should be plentiful carpentry work.

``I can live in a tent,″ he said. ``But not my wife and kids.″

When power was restored at Pineapple Willy’s on Thursday night, the friends took a break from cleanup to play pool under flashing dance floor lights. Baron Buskell recalled the battering.

As the huge waves came toward the building, he said, ``It sounded like someone rolling a bowling ball _ you’d hear it coming down _ and all of a sudden it would go, Ka-BOOM! Boom, boom, boom. It sounded like pins falling.″

And then, didn’t they wish they’d left?

``We’re a family,″ Buskell replied.

``We don’t give up,″ Higgins said, tugging on his red cap with a pineapple logo.

``If I was going down with the ship,″ he said, laughing, ``I was going with my hat.″

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