The banquet was wrapping up — the annual Memorial Day gathering at the 98-year-old American Legion hall in the city’s Bridesburg neighborhood — when the post commander suddenly ordered everyone out of the building.
There was a fire, those in attendance at the Boleslaw Grochowski American Legion Post 396 were told. As the 60 to 70 people stood outside in the 2300 block of Orthodox Street, they figured it was something small because they didn’t see smoke or flames.
Patrick Love Sr., the post commander, had seen the smoke in the crawl space at the top of the shaft of the dumbwaiter used to move beer and other items between floors in the two-story building. Two members had tried to knock the fire out with extinguishers but failed.
Things quickly got worse. As firefighters arrived on the scene around 2 p.m., smoke started billowing from the building. A lot of smoke. What was originally a two-alarm blaze escalated to four alarms.
“We’re just watching and watching,” said George Mondschein, 55, an American Legion member who was at the event, as firefighters doused the brick building with water. “And then it turned into what it is.”
No one inside at the time the fire broke out was hurt; one firefighter sustained a minor injury and was taken to the hospital, according to newly appointed Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel.
He said it took more than 100 firefighters 2 ½ hours to contain the blaze. More than an hour after the fire was deemed under control, smoke still poured from the broken windows.
“There’s still active fire in there,” Thiel said at a news conference held just before 6 p.m. “We’re calling this fire under control. But we’re going to be here for a while.”
Thiel said crews were able to keep the fire from spreading to two adjacent residences. He said the cause was still under investigation.
Hubert Huntzberry, 56, has lived less than a block from the American Legion post for more than a decade and said he plays cards there on Tuesday nights.
You can rebuild the building, which I hope they’re going to do,” he said. “But you’re not going to get the mementos back.”
Thinking of the memorabilia inside, dating from World War I, Mondschein said he wished he and the others had each grabbed an item on their way out.
Love was particularly worried about a memorial wall that honored late members of the post. Monday’s ceremony had included adding a dozen more name plates to it.
“I am praying; I am asking every Marine god that’s out there to please save that,” Love said Monday night. “If we cannot rebuild on site, maybe we can move the wall. But that wall to us is like the Vietnam Wall to Vietnam veterans. That is all our deceased members.”
Mondschein, who also lives about a block from the building, counts himself a member of the American Legion post since his days as a Boy Scout, when his troop held its meetings there.
“It kept me off the streets,” he said of his time as a scout. “Now it’s burned up.”
His wife, Genia Mondschein, 57, called the building a “cherished piece of history.”
“They have to rebuild,” she said, tears filling her eyes as she looked down the street. “No matter what fund-raising we have to do, we have to rebuild the legion.”
Love agreed, saying he would rebuild — whether at the site or elsewhere.
He had not yet gotten back into the building to assess the damage, but he was already looking to the future.
“If they tell me I can, then instead of having a 100-year-old memorial, we’ll have a 100-year rededication,” he said. “In two years I will have a celebration for our rededication of our new building.”