Family members were engaged in Christmas preparations — cooking, organizing gifts — getting ready to host extended family for the holiday, when Anastasia Gavalas smelled smoke.
She checked the basement, saw fire and ran for the fire extinguisher. But by the time she returned with it, there was so much smoke that she could no longer see, family friend Stacy Quarty related on Sunday.
That was three days after the family was able to escape the house on West Pond Drive in Bridgehampton, but the fire would rage on for hours on Thursday night, December 19, as seven departments fought the blaze in frigid temperatures.
In the end, the family home was gutted from the conflagration that started somehow in the basement, spreading quickly throughout the home.
A member of Southampton Ambulance, Ms. Quarty said she heard the address of the blaze come over the radio on Thursday afternoon, and her heart sank: Longtime friends George and Anastasia Gavalas live there with their five children. “They raised their kids in that house,” she said of the couple.
He’s a successful builder, she is the founder of the Wing It Project, a nonprofit that empowers children around the world. Both, said Ms. Quarty, are significant contributors to the community: Ms. Galvalas serves on the Southampton School Board, and Mr. Galvalas helped build the local Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons. The pair has two kids in college and three who are high school age.
Ms. Quarty said the family has a place to stay locally, and is doing okay after the blaze, but they were too upset to talk about their loss.
“They’re well off — they don’t need any money,” she said. “But they could use a hug. It’s a tragic thing, to lose your home.”
Neighbor William Joseph surveyed the scene in the early morning sunlight on Friday. Most of the front of the West Pond Drive house had been cut away, stately white columns still standing in an elegant entry contrasting with blackened siding and gaping holes offering a view straight through to the next block. Charred debris piled in the front yard of the home as a Highway Department truck dropped salt to melt the ice that covered the streets, a remnant from the prior night’s fire-and-ice struggle.
“You’d think they would have taken it down,” Mr. Joseph, who lives nearby on Kellis Pond Lane, mused, looking at the destruction. Portions of the house were pulled down to provide access to the flames as the long war was waged, but a shell remained.
“Smoke was billowing,” Mr. Joseph said of Thursday’s blaze. “My wife thought we were going to have to evacuate.”
The Joseph home is south of the fire scene. Smoke pouring into their yard on Kellis Pond Lane alerted them to the emergency on Thursday afternoon.
In total, 100 firefighters from numerous local fire departments responded to fight the fire. The battle lasted from the initial call at around 1:30 p.m. until close to midnight.
Participating departments included Bridgehampton, Southampton, North Sea, Montauk, Amagansett, Springs, East Hampton, Hampton Bays, and others, along with area ambulance services and the Suffolk County Major Emergency Response Vehicle. Volunteers from some departments deployed to the scene, while others provided mutual aid coverage.
By 4:40 p.m., the main fire had been knocked down, but volunteers continued to chase pockets of fire in the basement and the walls for hours longer. The fire reached into the attic of the house, and Southampton firefighters set up a tower ladder. Smoke and the tall crane that was used to pour water from above were visible to evening rush hour drivers on Montauk Highway.
Volunteers switched out with counterparts as time and cold wore on. Conditions were treacherous, the temperatures dipping to 20 degrees, with a wind chill making it feel like the mercury was plummeting even further.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, winter home fires wreak $2 billion in property loss and damage each year. Provident is an insurance agency that’s served volunteer fire departments since 1928. Listing the hazards of fighting fires during cold weather, the agency’s website notes, “Winter brings a unique set of risks and challenges for firefighters, ranging from mild inconvenience to extreme danger.”
The fire was not considered suspicious, and its cause was still under investigation, Fire Marshal John Rankin said Monday morning.
“We know it started in the basement,” he said, adding that heavy equipment will be needed to dig through ash and debris to find the conflagration’s cause.