At 2:45 a.m. on Monday, Ron Browne’s phone rang. “I said, ‘This better be good. There’d better be a fire or something,’” recalled Browne, the grand knight of the Long Beach Knights of Columbus.
To his shock and dismay, there was. Firefighters from seven departments were responding to a two-alarm blaze that ripped through the Knights of Columbus headquarters, at 970 W. Beech St., which had been repurposed as a relief center for victims of Hurricane Sandy in the weeks after the storm.
Long Beach Fire Chief Rich Corbett said that the flames were shooting 20 feet into the air when he arrived. The city’s Fire Department was the first on the scene, and firefighters from Island Park, Point Lookout Lido, Inwood, Oceanside, Rockville Centre and Lawrence assisted. According to Corbett, around 100 firefighters subdued the blaze in 90 minutes, but remained there until 6:15 a.m. to make sure that no small pockets of fire hidden in the wreckage were overlooked.
No one was in the building at the time, he said, and no injuries were reported, but the building is considered a total loss. Its roof collapsed, and the back wall appeared to be separating from the rest of the building, Corbett added. A house just south of the building suffered minor damage.
The fire appeared to have started at the rear of the building, Corbett said, though it was still unclear whether it had originated in the kitchen or the meeting hall. The Nassau County fire marshal had not determined the cause as the Herald went to press on Wednesday, but it was described as “not suspicious.”
Nearby residents said they were devastated by the news, especially since the organization had been using the facility to help storm victims.
“When is it going to end, all of this pain and misery?” said Denise Ford, a Nassau County legislator and a West End resident. “It’s literally attacking the soul of the West End.”
The Knights of Columbus opened their doors to the public just days after the storm, with volunteers serving three meals a day and distributing donated supplies. The organization has always been involved in the community, Ford and others said, but residents lauded its most recent efforts. “No matter what — it could be raining, snowing — they were always there,” she said.
West End resident John McNally said that his neighborhood has been slower to recover than the East End, and that the fire was another blow to an organization that was doing great work in the community. “They kept the area afloat over the past few weeks,” McNally said. “The hits just keep coming.”
According to Browne, the building will have to be demolished and rebuilt. The Knights of Columbus had recently begun to focus on repairing damage it suffered in the storm — a problem, he joked ruefully, that was eliminated by the fire. “Our demolition is pretty much done now, thanks to the Long Beach Fire Department,” he said.
Browne added that the organization would remain active in the community — even without a headquarters — and would still hold its annual children’s Christmas party on Dec. 23, from 1 to 4 p.m. at St. Ignatius Martyr Church. This year, local children made a “Santa’s wish list,” and the Knights will be fulfilling as many wishes as possible at the party.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Browne said.
George Gentilesco, a member and a former deputy grand knight, was in the building the night before the fire, watching the Giants-Saints game with his father. He said that he grew up in the building, and seeing the damage the next day was disheartening.
“It’s kind of like a second home,” Gentilesco said. “It’s a good place to hang your hat.”
As the organization looks to rebuild, Corbett said that he hoped its members would find help in the same community they had worked to support. “The K of C was there when the West End needed them,” Corbett said. “Now, hopefully, the West End will be there when the K of C needs them.”