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Fire destroys Sagamore Hill’s Visitor Center

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Kelley Fuhrman, the superintendent at the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, the one-time Oyster Bay home of President Theodore Roosevelt, has seen many fires in his lifetime.

A wildland firefighter, he has fought blazes in various parks out West. But the 8:45 a.m. Christmas Eve fire that gutted the interior of the Sagamore Hill Visitor Center was different. “I’ve been in wildfires out West and chased fires in the woods but never in a building before,” he said.

By 11:45 a.m. the fire was out, but the sooty smell of the damage remained.

The visitor center sold books, videos, souvenirs and stuffed animals relating to Roosevelt and his family. When asked how much the national park had lost monetarily, Fuhrman said he did not know. “This is devastating for Sagamore Hill, but we will get our heads around it.”

The main house at Sagamore Hill, now a museum, is where Roosevelt lived from 1885 until his death in 1919. Fuhrman has been the superintendent at Sagamore Hill for five years. He lives in a gray cottage a few feet away from the visitor center with his wife and young children. When he first heard there was a fire, he said he could smell the smoke, but not see the flames.

Vincent Bellissimo, the Oyster Bay Fire Department assistant chief, said he received word of the fire at 8:43 a.m. and arrived at 8:45 – the first chief on the scene. Having been to Sagamore Hill many times and even having his wedding pictures taken there, he knew the way.

Bellissimo said he saw smoke pouring from the eves of the visitor center roof. And from the plumbing vent, which is “shin high off the ground,” he saw flames.

“I opened the main door of the building and was hit in the face with smoke and heat,” Bellissimo said. “I got around to where the boiler was in the men’s room closet and opened it and got hit in the face with fire, so I closed the door quickly.”

He knew where the boiler was, he said, because “we had been there during the summer several times because it kept setting the alarm system off.”

He requested assistance and received it from the East Norwich, Bayville, Locust Valley, Syosset, Glenwood, and Jericho fire departments. Nearly 100 firefighters responded, with the Oyster Bay and Atlantic Steamer fire departments leading the effort.

Bellissimo said the firefighters removed the boiler and cut open the floor to extinguish the blaze. They also attacked the blaze from the roof, cutting it open and pulling the ceilings down. “The entire building was damaged, mostly from fire and smoke,” he said. It took under an hour to put out the fire. “Fortunately, this happened during the government shutdown. There were no people there, no cars in the lot, and no one was hurt.”

After the fire, Sue Sarna, the museum’s curator, tried unsuccessfully to access the center’s camera feed. She said that when she heard about the fire, she immediately left her home and followed a fire truck to Sagamore Hill. “I was praying that the two historic buildings next to the center — the chicken coop and the carriage house — were not damaged,” she said, adding that the visitor center, built in 1950, was not an historic building. “I don’t keep any original artifacts in the visitor center. There are only period pieces there, nothing belonging to the Roosevelt family.”

Another historic building, the New Barn, which was built by Roosevelt in 1890, is 100 yards away from the center. All three historic buildings were spared.