As the flames devoured the historic Sugar Bowl Lanes early Sunday morning, Frances Romero — the daughter of the late Marvin “Sugar” and Eva Glidewell, the longtime owners of the Belen bowling alley on Becker Avenue — stood silently in shock and devastation.
She couldn’t believe what she was witnessing. A large part of her family’s legacy was tied to the building, where thousands of families once spent their nights laughing and having fun.
“My husband woke me up saying the bowling alley was on fire,” said Romero, who lives in a house directly behind the bowling alley. “A police officer asked me if we lived here, and he told me he knocked on the door. You can’t hear (anything) in that house.”
Romero’s husband, Steve, said he had woken up just after 5 a.m. to use the bathroom when he smelled the smoke.
“I woke up, I smelled the smoke,” Steve said. “I looked out and I could see fire all across — everywhere.”
“All I could say was, ‘Oh my God.’ I just talked to God,” Frances said as she watched the firefighters fight the blaze. “Lord, help us. I cannot believe this.”
Marvin “Sugar” Glidewell bought the bowling alley in 1954, and added four more lanes to the existing eight. Since those early days, Romero said, railroaders would stay in the apartments above the bowling alley.
Sugar Bowl Lanes closed its doors for good on May 8, 2008, about 17 months before Marvin “Sugar” Glidewell died in October 2009. His beloved wife, Eva, passed away in January 2013. After their deaths, the couple’s son, Marvin “Sugar” Jr. inherited the building, never reopening the bowling alley again. He died in April 2020.
Romero’s best friend, Debi Wright, rushed to her friend’s side as soon as she heard about the fire. She, along with many others who grew up in the Hub City, could hardly believe the building is now gone.
“We bowled since we were young,” Wright said. “We would come for PE here in junior high. There was teams; it was just a wonderful place to be.”
Romero said a movie production company had recently expressed interest in using and possibly purchasing the old bowling alley, but the offer was taken back when part of the roof collapsed after a snow storm in January.
The building was for sale, but wasn’t insured, Romero said.
Belen Fire Chief Bret Ruff said firefighters received a 911 call just before 5 a.m. Sunday, July 11. When they arrived, the building was fully involved.
“Our first initial crew started into a defensive operation due to the nature of the fire,” Ruff said. “It wasn’t safe for anyone to go inside.”
Crews utilized the aerial ladder truck to help combat the blaze, and other county fire departments, including Valencia County, Rio Communities, Jarales, Los Chavez and Tomé/Adelino, also arrived to fight the fire. About 20 firefighters were on hand to douse the flames.
An enormous amount of water was used in the fire fight — the ladder truck pushed about 1,100 gallons per minute, and some of the other operations were about 500 gallons per minute, Ruff said.
It took about four hours to extinguish the blaze, and fire crews will continue to monitor the scene throughout Sunday and into Monday.
“With this structure, it was kind of unique,” the fire chief said. “Being that it’s a bowling alley, you have treated woods, a lot of polymers inside, a lot of machinery.
“We did have a storage facility on the back side that had a lot of chemicals, such as waxes. We were trying to keep that from catching on fire, but due to the radiant heat, it still caught fire.
“The whole roof has caved in, including all four walls,” Ruff said Sunday. “We still have fire and heat trapped underneath that roof. We’ve got fire investigators here from local, state and the federal side here. Everyone wants to figure out what happened and why it happened.”
It will probably take some time for investigators to determine a cause of the fire, Ruff said, adding they will have to pull the building apart without compromising any evidence.
“We don’t know if it was accidental or intentional,” the fire chief said. “We don’t know what the cause is yet. We’ll slowly start dissecting it as soon as we can.”
Ruff said the property had been red tagged since the roof had partially collapsed, and there was no power, gas or water at the building.
Romero’s home and several other adjacent properties did receive some minor melting, and because of the amount of water used, there was some flooding. Several pumping trucks were in the neighborhood Sunday taking the water away.
“The firefighters are hot, we’re tired and hungry,” Ruff said. “We did have one who had a bit of heat exhaustion, but he’s good. He was one of the first on scene. We just do what we do until we can’t do it anymore.”
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.