Emporium Fire Remembered 25 Years Later

The Emporium Hardware store, above, following the Easter Sunday fire in 1994. At right, Emporium True Value Hardware as it stands today.

The call came in during the early morning hours on April 3, Easter Sunday, of 1994.

Kevin O’Brien was the chief of the Sag Harbor Volunteer Fire Department at the time, and he was on call. He remembers sighing and getting out of bed. “Automatic alarm at the Emporium Hardware Store.” In his drowsy state, that’s what he thought he heard over the radio. But as he steered his car from his home on Joel’s Lane and into Sag Harbor Village, he remembered: there were no alarms in that building. He pressed down harder on the gas pedal.

In the short drive to Main Street, his radio was crackling with the voices of other Sag Harbor firefighters, the urgency and panic rising quickly in their voices.

“My assistant chief at the time, Mike McAree, was at the rear of the building on Meadow Street, and he was getting real loud on the radio,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I said, ‘You need to calm down.’ And he says, ‘Oh yeah? Come around back.’ Right then and there, I knew we had a major problem.”

A total of 21 fire departments, from Montauk to Yaphank, made their way to Sag Harbor in the early morning hours that day to fight one of the biggest fires in the village’s history. The Emporium True Value Hardware Store, owned by brothers Frank and Dennis D’Angelo, and located on Main Street in the heart of the village, burned down that day, causing major damage to adjacent buildings as well.

As the 25thanniversary of the blaze approaches, the D’Angelo family, former Sag Harbor Fire Department Chief O’Brien, and others whose lives were directly affected looked back on the fire, sharing their memories from that day, and its aftermath. From the year-long effort to rebuild the store, which still stands today, to the ability of the firefighters to prevent loss of life and save the surrounding stores from total destruction, it is a story of a potentially larger crisis averted, thanks to the ability of a small community to come together and overcome adversity.

The Cause

The fire started innocently enough, in a freak accident kind of way. A large mop, the kind used to apply floor finish, had spontaneously combusted after being left out with linseed oil still on it. That was the conclusion the fire department came to within about a week, according to Frank D’Angelo. He spoke last week over the phone from his second home in Florida, where he spends most of his time now after retiring four years ago. The store is now owned and operated by his two sons, Mike D’Angelo, 38, and Pete D’Angelo, 35.

The way Mr. D’Angelo found out about the fire is hard to fathom in today’s age. He did not witness the blaze — it was contained before he even knew about it, although firefighters remained on the scene for three days. As fate would have it, he and his family, who lived in Southampton, had piled into their car after going to church that morning, heading to Rockland County for a visit with his wife’s side of the family. Had they been home for a bit later, it’s likely they would have discovered that the family business was going up in flames. Instead, as fire trucks poured into Sag Harbor from surrounding towns, they were headed west, unaware of what was happening. In the days before cell phones were ubiquitous, and without anyone from his extended family even fully aware of exactly where they were going that day, he said, Mr. D’Angelo did not find out about the fire until he returned home late that night to an answering machine full of frantic messages. His oldest child, daughter Nicole, was a teenager at the time, eager to see who had called during the day. She alerted her father right away to a steady stream of frantic messages.

“It was pretty traumatic at the time,” Mr. D’Angelo recalled. “The village was really a mess. I went downtown and started answering questions with the fire marshal. I was just trying to make sense of it all.”

The Response

While the D’Angelo family was hours away enjoying Easter Sunday with relatives, Mr. O’Brien was handling one of the biggest challenges of his career as a firefighter, trying to keep what was already a once in a generation fire from becoming a full-blown catastrophe, managing the response of 21 departments that came with aerial ladders, tankers and other advanced fire fighting equipment.

“You name it, we had it,” Mr. O’Brien said.

No one was in the store, but there was a dramatic rescue of one tenant who was present in one of the four upstairs apartments during the fire. Firefighters rescued Lucas Stone and his dog, a black lab named Pinot. A fire department aerial ladder was not set up in place yet, requiring the firefighters to use the less stable ladders to remove Mr. Stone and his dog from the building.

Mr. Stone was living in the apartment, which belonged to his father, Dick Stone, an artist who used the space as a studio. Mr. Stone’s parents were away in Europe at the time of the fire, and he remembers going into the kitchen to make breakfast when he heard the village’s fire alarm go off. He looked out the window to see what was going on after he heard the alarm going off an unusual number of times, figuring that maybe it was malfunctioning. When he decided to head downstairs, he was greeted by a wall of thick, black smoke in the stairwell. He went back inside, grabbed Pinot, and went out on the deck, then watched as the interior of the apartment began to fill with smoke, surrounding his father’s paintings.

“I went to the far side of the deck and looked at the roof of the hardware store,” he recalled. “The plastic of the several skylights, instead of curving upwards toward the sky seemed to be curving downward into the store.”

The firefighters had spotted him by then. He handed the dog to one firefighter, who took it down, and then proceeded down the ladder himself, to safety.

“I then spent the rest of the day watching the entire building and everything that was in it, all of my father’s work, all of my stuff, burn up.”

Aside from the top priority of preventing loss of life, the firefighters also had to work fast to make sure the blaze stayed as contained as possible, no easy task when dealing with buildings that are stacked right next to each other for nearly the entire length of Main Street. Mr. O’Brien said he directed the firefighters to make what’s called a trench cut on the roof of the adjacent building, owned by Marty Trunzo, the longtime operator of Marty’s Barber Shop. It sounds like what it’s named — and it’s dangerous work. Firefighters made their way onto the roof, and using equipment, cut a large trench that functioned as a firestopper, keeping it from spreading to other buildings. Mr. O’Brien said he knew that had been the right call when, as the fire was raging, three other retired chiefs who happened to live in the village and were watching the blaze came over to him and told him he needed to make a trench cut. He said he informed them that it was already underway, adding that it was “a relief” to hear the seasoned fire chiefs, who had run departments in much bigger cities and towns, validate his decision.

He credited the move with saving Mr. Trunzo’s building, adding that the weather had deteriorated throughout the day, with windy conditions making the fire even more difficult to fight.

Looking back, Mr. O’Brien said the situation turned out remarkably well.

“We were so lucky nobody was killed,” he said. “I thank God. It could’ve been horrible.

“Firefighting is a very dangerous thing,” he continued. “That’s why we constantly train. It’s the same thing for the city guys. Even though they do it every single day, they train too, to stay sharp. You always have to be on your game. It’s a matter of not losing your cool. Once you lose your cool, it’s over.”

The Aftermath

For Frank D’Angelo, whether or not to rebuild was never a question. But the roughly year-long period from the fire until the grand re-opening of the store was certainly a difficult time period.

There were several factors that kept a tough situation from becoming worse, according to Mr. D’Angelo. The family owned two other businesses — the Water Mill Lumber Supply and a lumber yard out in Montauk — so that helped ease the blow financially. Mr. D’Angelo was able to make sure all of the stores employees at the time had work either at another one of their businesses or another True Value hardware store. And all of the tenants in the building were able to find places to live in the year while the store was being rebuilt. Only three of the building’s four apartments were occupied at the time, he said, although he pointed out that the nearby buildings, including Schmidt’s Liquor Store and Schiavoni’s IGA, among others, sustained damage that had to be addressed and displaced tenants temporarily. But Mr. D’Angelo said they had good insurance, and he’d also made the switch to computer filing, meaning all orders and outstanding invoices were not lost.

Mr. D’Angelo also credited Sag Harbor village officials with working fast to help the business get back on its feet.

“We got some pretty quick approvals once we got the new design,” he said. “We started to pour concrete in December, and seven months later, the store was open.

“Everything, in the long run, was okay,” he continued. “But you didn’t feel that way when you were going through it.”

Staying Power

For brothers Mike and Pete D’Angelo, who now run the store, memories of that time are colored by the fact that they were young teenagers, still years away from starting out with basic jobs at the store. Mike, who was a freshman at Southampton High School, said he remembers things being “tense” at home during that time, but said his thoughts were primarily occupied with the success of the New York Rangers ice hockey team, which won the Stanley Cup that year. It wasn’t until many years later that he’d come to gain a full understanding and appreciation of what happened, when he did an eight-year stint with the Sag Harbor Fire Department, starting in 2008, when he moved to Sag Harbor, where he still lives now with his wife and children.

“I met a bunch of guys who were involved in it, and heard their stories,” he said. “It was a pretty wild scene based on the stories they told, of people really putting their lives on the line.”

More recognition came five years later, when he found a box in his grandparents house filled with cards people had sent his family in the aftermath of the fire, expressing condolences.

Pete, the youngest of the three children, was 13, but remembers certain details as well.

“I remember being dropped off late for school the next day, and then I came down with my parents,” he said. “Everything was charred rubble, and blackened merchandise. I’ll never forget that smell. It was like wood that was in a bonfire and leftover.”

The elder Mr. D’Angelo said the Sag Harbor community stepped up in many ways to help his family and other people affected by the fire recover. He remembered a fundraiser at Bay Street Theater to help people who lived in the apartments in his building and those nearby who had been displaced.

“It was pretty impressive,” he said. “The town really did pay close attention.

“It’s a small town where everybody knows everybody,” he added. “And they don’t forget about each other.”

Surviving a major fire and not only rebuilding but continuing to thrive for many years in a village where the economic landscape is ever changing, and storefronts change at an increasingly dizzying pace, is no small feat, and it’s a point of pride for the family, which has run the store since 1977, making it one of the longest standing businesses on Main Street. Pete acknowledged the changes he and his brother have seen in more recent years — busier summer seasons, slower winters, and the challenges of competing with chain home improvement stores and the internet. But they seem confident they can withstand those challenges, perhaps because of a proven track record of staying power, against big odds.

“You have to focus on customer service and making people happy to come here,” Pete said. “You have to give them a reason to come into the store instead of going to the internet. We’ll stay as long as we’re profitable.”