The day fire destroyed Bunbury’s Bussell Motor Hotel | flashback

July 19, 2002 is a day that lives on in the memories of many Bunbury people with fire destroying the Bussell Motor Hotel. A look inside the Mail archives reveals a tough day for the City with the loss of a popular watering hole. 

The last beer – by Narelle Butcher, Bunbury Mail, July 24, 2002.

Jack Retzlaff was the first person to have a beer at the Bussell Motor Hotel when it opened its doors 31 years ago. 

Last Friday, he was also the last, moments before the pub burnt to the ground. 

Just like every great pub story, this one has a little bit of fiction, a fair amount of colourful language and an element of truth holding it all together. 

As rumour has it, Mr Retzlaff was enjoying a quiet drink with his mates when the fire started to engulf the bar named after his winning horse, Radiant Oro. 

Flames licked around the magnificent photograph of Radiant Oro crossing the line to win the first WA Trotting Cup in 1969. Across the bar, a stoic Mr Retzlaff refused to leave until he finished the last drop of his final beer in the final hour of The Bussell. 

Another story goes that it was Mr Retzlaff’s turn to buy a round. 

“Maybe Jack started the fire. He’d do just about anything to get out of buying a round,” joked mate Tim Crosby. 

Jack Retzlaff and Tim Crosby farewell the old Bussell Motor Hotel.

Jack Retzlaff and Tim Crosby farewell the old Bussell Motor Hotel.

The reality was a little less dramatic. Mr Retzlaff evacuated the premises to watch on with the crowd as “his bar” turned into a ball of flames under a cloud of black smoke. 

He lost his prized trotting trophies, the photograph of Radiant Oro and his favourite watering hole. 

All he was left with was the glass from his last drink. Mr Retzlaff vows he will return it when The Bussell reopens. 

He wants to be the first patron served once again. 

“As soon as it opens, I’ll be there for the opening day,” he said. 

“It was something you had and then it was gone. It was a big loss.”

Mr Retzlaff said he drank at The Bussell with Mr Crosby most Friday nights but because of the fire, he would be spending this Friday night at home with his wife.

Hundreds at the fire

Hundreds of people gathered to watch The Bussell Motor Hotel go up in flames on Friday. 

The arson squad and South West forensic officers investigated and found the fire started accidentally from a fault in an exhaust fan. 

The fire started about 4.30pm when an employee attempted to turn on an exhaust fan in the Sportsman Bar. 

Patrons in the bar said it took just minutes for the building to go up in flames. Everyone was evacuated safely. 

Damage to the building was estimated to be about $2 million. 

Renovations planned

The Bussell Hotel was due to be redeveloped as part of a major plan for the site by owners Erceg. 

The tavern, currently set back a distance from Bussell Highway, was to be moved closer to the highway and a new drive-in take-away outlet and service station built on the site. 

Under plans already submitted to Bunbury City Council, the tavern redevelopment would be part of a second stage. 

Stage one was a small increase in retail spaces in the shopping centre behind the tavern. 

A council spokesperson said planning approval had already been given to both stages. A application for building approval for stage one is currently awaiting council approval. 

Parade plans a wake

Good times at The Bussell Motor Hotel will be remembered at a special celebration at The Parade Hotel on Saturday night. 

Parade Hotel owner Fred Lemmone said Friday's fire could only be described as nothing short of devastating. 

“It’s tragic that an entertainment icon such as The Bussell is no longer there,” Mr Lemmone said. 

“There are memories from Bunbury people that go back 31 years.

“What we have lost is a place where a lot of people gathered, met and even married.”

The Bussell Motor Hotel in better times. Photo: Brad Repacholi/Memories of Bunbury.

The Bussell Motor Hotel in better times. Photo: Brad Repacholi/Memories of Bunbury.

Mr Lemmone worked at The Bussell for several years, alongside current manager John Waters. 

He said he hoped to create some nostalgia for Bunbury people. 

“The publicans of Bunbury will share their memories with John and his other staff,” Mr Lemmone said. 

Farewell to a Bunbury icon

The Bussell Motor Hotel has been an icon in Bunbury and will be sadly missed. 

For many years it held the reputation as the premier concert venue in the city. 

Bands such as the Angels, Jimmy Barnes, Rose Tattoo, Black Sorrows – now part of Australian rock folklore – excited local crowds with powerful performances at The Bussell. 

And on the other side of the pub, in a bar named in honour of Jack Retzlaff’s fabulous win with Radiant Oro in 1969, bets were wagered and lost and reputations dashed over the pool tables. 

Countless stories were told and retold – each time with a bit more colour – over a few quiet ones. 

The Bussell was an Australian pub in every sense of the word. 

What makes Friday’s fire at The Bussell all the more tragic is that the traditional Aussie pub is an endangered species. Many in Perth have been replaced by swanky upmarket establishments full of cappuccino tables and designer beers. 

The linoleum floor, the racing form on the bar and locals nursing their middies have had to make way for a new market. 

Let’s hope the new renovated Bussell can manage to retain some of its heritage.