The smell of grilling chicken mingled with the acrid odor of charred wood on Woodlawn Avenue late Sunday morning, as members of the Saratoga Assembly of God church prepared food for those displaced by a massive fire that destroyed a nearby series of brownstone row houses early Sunday.
The fire, which was reported at 4:03 a.m., destroyed 100, 102, 104, 106 and 108 Woodlawn Ave., between VanDam and Church streets, leaving 32 people homeless, according to Saratoga Springs Police Lt. John Catone.
Some of the residents were Saratoga Race Course pari-mutuel clerks who were in Saratoga Springs for the racing meet.
About 16 people were in the buildings at the time the fire started, but no one was injured, Catone confirmed.
Close to 100 firefighters and 15 firetrucks responded to the scene.
According to a news release issued by Saratoga police, fire Chief Robert Williams declared the fire under control at 9:15 a.m. Sunday morning, but crews were still dousing the stubborn fire from the ground and with a bucket truck as late as 11 a.m.
A moldering pile of bricks and charred boards was all that remained of the back portion of the buildings at that hour, but the fronts of the brownstones were still mainly intact.
Three firefighters were transported to Saratoga Hospital and treated for heat- and smoke-related issues. All have been released, according to Saratoga police.
The fire caused the temporary closure of several roads, including part of Broadway, as fire crews tapped into multiple water mains.
Woodlawn Avenue from Church Street to VanDam Street, and Van Dam Street from Broadway to Clinton Street will remain closed until further notice, according to police.
The fire raced through the structures due in part to a lack of fire walls, Catone said.
Police said W.J. Morris Excavation would work through Sunday night to take down 106 and 108 Woodlawn Ave.
The brownstones destroyed in the fire are all owned by Bob Israel, who was out of the country Sunday, Catone said.
Brianna Gugliuzza, who lived in the basement apartment at 106 Woodlawn Ave. with her fiancé, Robert Buirne, was woken around 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning by the sound of people pounding on doors.
“We heard noises all throughout the building and thought, ‘What’s going on?’ ” she recounted as she waited in line to speak to a Red Cross worker who was stationed at the Saratoga Assembly of God church.
Buirne looked out the front window of their apartment and told Gugliuzza he thought he saw smoke.
Gugliuzza said she then went to the back of the building, where the parking lot was, and saw flames.
“We threw on whatever we could and ran out the back door and literally the flames, they were just engulfing it,” she said near tears. “We just watched it completely take over the back of the building.”
Gugliuzza was gripping a small plastic bag containing toothpaste and deodorant — items given to her at the church.
“Everything we had is just gone,” she said.
Robert Chin, who lived on the second floor of 106 Woodlawn Ave., got out of his apartment with only his wallet. He sat looking dazed in the vestibule of the church Sunday morning, flanked by two white plastic trash bags full of clothing given to him at the church. He said awoke in the wee hours of the morning to people shouting, “fire, fire!” and was able to exit the building using the stairs.
“I just stayed outside to watch,” he said.
Witnesses say the fire began in the back of 108 Woodlawn Ave., Catone reported. The investigation is ongoing, but the fire is not presently being considered suspicious in nature, he said.
Surrounding buildings sustained damage during the massive blaze. The siding on the back of 18 Division St. was melted and the building at 110 Woodlawn Ave. had some damage as well, Catone said.
Mary King, 76, of 98 Woodlawn Ave. — a wood-framed structure next to the ruined brownstones — surveyed the scene from down the street at around 10 a.m. Sunday morning, unsure what damage the fire had caused to her home and unable to get back inside due to the instability of the fire-ravaged building next door.
She was woken at around 4 a.m. Sunday morning by a phone call from a neighbor who said there were firetrucks in the street. King woke her 83-year-old husband, gathered his medications and said they got out as fast as they could.
According to a news release from the American Red Cross, at least 30 people were expected to be relocated to the Saratoga Springs Recreation Center at 15 Vanderbilt Ave. in the city. Red Cross workers plan to provide food and temporary housing and will work with fire victims on longer-term living arrangements.
According to Teresa Genaro’s Brooklyn Backstretch Web page, donations of new and gently used clothing, gift cards, pre-paid phone cards, pre-paid cellphones and toiletries will be accepted today, Thursday, and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Saratoga Race Course backstretch recreation hall inside Gate 16 off of Union Avenue. The donations will be used to assist Saratoga Race Course workers displaced by the fire.
There was a lunch buffet being set up for fire victims in the sanctuary of the Assembly of God church late Sunday morning. Pastor Todd Bumbarger said the church is also providing clothing and shoes to those who lost their possessions in the fire. Red Cross volunteers set up headquarters there, as well, and helped displaced residents with relocation arrangements.
Barbecue for victims
The congregation had planned a barbecue for church members Sunday, but upon learning about the fire, decided to feed the fire victims instead.
“It just so happened that this tragedy happened today and we decided to take all of the food we had prepped and put it to better use than for ourselves,” said church member Shannon Johnson, who was grilling hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken outside the church Sunday morning.
Former Saratoga Springs Department of Public Works Commissioner Tom McTygue lived in 106 Woodlawn Ave. for the first 10 years of his life from 1941 to 1951, and his parents ran a grocery store on the corner of Woodlawn Avenue and VanDam Street in the 1960s.
He surveyed the damage to his old home Sunday and later reminisced about it during a phone interview.
“Back in those days, they didn’t have a heating system at all. We called them cold weather flats,” he recounted. “We had to heat each individual apartment and we had a coal stove and heated with coal. Some heated with kerosene heaters,” he said, noting that he thought that the buildings would have been more likely to catch fire back then.