Fire shutters Little Italy, displaces 11

11 people in 6 apartments displaced, helped by Red Cross; pizza shop owner looks to rebuild

The Little Italy restaurant in Saranac Lake was in rough shape on Wednesday after a propane heater fire in an apartment on the third floor of the building triggered the sprinkler system and flooded the building. The structure was saved, but the restaurant and apartments are not able to be occupied for a while. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — A fire started by a suspected propane heater malfunction in an apartment above Little Italy threatened to burn down the building early Wednesday morning, and though the internal sprinkler system saved the building, it also flooded it in the process, displacing residents of six apartments there and shuttering the pizza shop for the time being.

“Thank God the sprinkler system worked,” said Paolo Magro, who owns the building and Little Italy. “Everybody’s safe. That’s the most important. Thank God. … The (repairs on the) building, as I understand, is not easy, but everybody is safe.”

The Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department responded to 23 Main St. at 12:34 a.m. Wednesday with two trucks and 10 members for a “serious” fire spewing from a wall-mounted propane heater on the third floor.

There was a sprinkler right above the heater, which put out the majority of the fire and kept it from spreading, SLVFD Chief Brendan Keough said.

“It was a good outcome,” he said. “I credit the sprinkler system for saving lives. I think it would have been a very different outcome without it. … It worked perfect.”

The tenant of the apartment where the fire started was treated by the Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad at the scene for minor burns they suffered on their face and legs, Keough said, and the person declined transport to the hospital.

While firefighters were in the apartment, the propane heater kicked on again and reignited, shooting flames into the ceiling.

“It was basically like a blow-torch or a flame thrower shooting up out of the top of it,” Keough said. “Picture a jet engine. Not to the volume of a jet engine, but there was quite a bit of volume. … It wasn’t a lazy fire.”

Keough said firefighters turned the gas off, which shut the fire down immediately.

SLVFD Driver Rick Yorkey said firefighters believe there was a malfunction in the heater.

Outside, they turned off the propane tanks and Keough said they shut off the sprinkler system as soon as possible to minimize water damage.

Keough said there was very little fire and smoke damage, but a lot of water damage. He said it was impressive to see the sprinklers pouring out water, effectively slowing the fire.

The system saved the building, but flooded every floor, including the basement. The entire building is now temporarially unoccupied. Keough said he reached out to the American Red Cross in the middle of the night and everyone living there found somewhere to spend the night — whether at a hotel or with friends and family.

Volunteers from the Northeastern New York Chapter of the American Red Cross provided immediate emergency aid — shelter, food, clothing, health services, emotional support and comfort kits containing personal care items — to 11 people in six households, according to a press release from the Red Cross. That includes seven adults and four children, ages 1, 6, 8 and 10.

One additional family will be provided services today, according to the Red Cross, and volunteers will help the people affected by the fire in the coming days, “as they navigate the road to recovery.”

Members of the Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department stood by at the SLVFD station. Firefighters were back in service at 2:50 a.m.

Yorkey said firefighters used a small bit of water to put out hot spots.

He said two apartments and the restaurant sustained the worst damage.

“There’s a lot of damage,” Magro said.

Inside the restaurant, the drop-tile ceiling tiles had disintegrated and fallen all over the tables. In the basement, employees scooped water into dust pans and bailed out the floor of large puddles. Magro said in the early morning of Wednesday, the water was around ankle-height.

He said crews will have to cut out almost all the wood from the walls and ceiling. It can’t stay in there. The wood will not dry easily, he said, and if it stays moist, it weakens its structural integrity. Magro estimated that around 95% of the walls and ceilings — all of which are wooden — were soaked.

He said he’s unsure if the kitchen equipment is still in working order. They plan to wait a few days for the water to dry up before turning the electricity on again.

Downstairs, employees were sorting through ingredients and supplies, throwing out items contaminated by water and saving anything still dry.

On Wednesday, Magro was waiting on a response from his insurance company before he could think about rebuilding. He said he was contacting contractors to start doing work, but “everyone is busy” and he was hearing from some contractors that they would not be available for months.

He’s owned the building and pizza shop at 23 Main St. for 22 years.

“This is my life,” Magro said.

He said he’s thankful for the fire department, rescue squad and village police who responded.

“Thank you to the community, from Paolo, Bonnie (his wife) and family,” Magro said. “I hope soon we’ll be back, but we don’t know how long we’ll be shut down.”


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