B&G Deli owner Alphonse Lentz was at his Salisbury store late on March 16, hours after closing. He was rearranging some things, he said, and left at 11 p.m. On his way home to Bohemia, he got a call to come back, because at approximately 11:15, his building and the four that surrounded it had caught fire.
Police had seen smoke coming out of Ralph’s Italian Ices, two doors down from the delicatessen, in the strip mall south of the intersection of Carman and Stewart avenues. They called the East Meadow Fire Department. Lentz said he was grateful that police called so quickly, adding that it was not unusual for them to be nearby. His late brother was a state trooper. Lentz said he has always had a close relationship with the local police.
Firefighter John O’Brien Sr., from East Meadow Station 1, said the call initially reported smoke inside Ralph’s. But when EMFD Chief James Walsh, arrived minutes later, he saw smoke in all five of the stores, which indicated a fire. He requested additional manpower.
Eighty East Meadow volunteers from seven companies led the effort to fight the fire, with another 20 firefighters assisting from other departments, including Bellmore, Hicksville, Levittown, North Bellmore, North Merrick, Wantagh and Westbury. A firefighter assist search team was also on the scene.
“The fight was on to save the row of stores, as Carman Avenue was filled with fire apparatus,” O’Brien said. “As additional firefighters arrived, hose lines were deployed to different businesses in hopes of getting ahead of the fire.”
Firefighters were quick to realize that the blaze was actually not in Ralph’s, O’Brien said. “We couldn’t see the fire, but once we opened the ceiling at [Every Day Laundromat], it showed its ugly face,” he said. “We did a pretty good stop.”
The fire was extinguished within 20 minutes. No one was hurt, but the incident remains under investigation by the Nassau County fire marshal.
The blaze damaged Ralph’s, B&G, the Laundromat, Miss Beauty Nails & Spa and an empty storefront, once the popular J&R Discount, which relocated to Levittown a few years ago.
B&G, which lost everything, had its ceiling removed so firefighters could look for hidden pockets of fire, O’Brien said.
“I had 500 dinners prepared for the East Meadow Kiwanis Club’s dinner for Sunday’s and another 100 for a Knights of Columbus Saturday dinner,” said Lentz, who has owned B&G for 22 years. “That’s the thing that really bothers me. People who can’t eat.”
Neighborhoods surrounding the strip mall experienced two power surges earlier in the evening, at 9:15 and 11, and many homes lost power. “Did that power surge short anything? I don’t know,” said East Meadow Firefighter Dick Cardozo, adding that he felt fortunate. “Ralph’s Italian Ices has a two-for-one on Tuesdays, and we were going to go there. It’s an ironic twist of fate.”
Lentz said he was thankful for the Fire Department’s quick response, and that firefighters managed to salvage something precious to him. He collects tattered American flags, and kept them near the entrance of the deli. Once a month, a member of the American Legion stops by to take the flags for proper disposal. He also had trophies — Lentz is active in the community, sponsoring children’s athletic organizations — and memorabilia honoring his late brother.
“They brought the pictures and American flags out of the building for me,” he said. “The honor and respect they have for me . . . they all know me. They even grabbed my awards, but grabbing those flags — that’s the greatest thing in the world to me.”
Lifelong Salisbury resident William Sean Russell said that Lentz is a fixture in the neighborhood, and has supported it since he bought the deli. “It’s heartbreaking, the extensive damage from the smoke and water,” Russell said. “All of his food and perishables have to be discarded.”
Russell wanted to help Lentz and his employees, who are now out of work. He started a GoFundMe page, hoping to collect $10,000. As of press time, roughly $3,800 had been donated.
“Al is very generous, and even though he doesn’t live in our community, he cares about it,” Russell said. “He is always donating food to causes, supports our Little Leagues and other sports. When I spoke to him, he was in good spirits. Al said he will rebuild the store.”
East Meadow firefighter John J. O’Brien Sr. contributed to this story.