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East Boston club has a home again

The Orient Heights Yacht Club rebounds after its original clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 2000

The Orient Heights Yacht Club rebounds after its original clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 2000

For nearly a century East Boston’s Orient Heights Yacht Club was a meeting place for club members and for community members alike. Annual regattas were launched from the marina. Blessing of the Fleet celebrations and neighborhood barbecues were held there. For many people the clubhouse was like a second home.

That all changed April 8, 2000, when an electrical fire, fueled by highly flammable substances and high winds, broke out underneath the 2-1/2-story wooden-framed clubhouse. Within minutes the flames consumed the building and 17 boats, and reduced it all to a pile of twisted metal, ash and melted fiberglass.

It wasn’t until Feb. 26, 2005, almost five years after the fire, that Orient Heights Yacht Club members were able to reunite under the same roof — of their new clubhouse. Standing on the exact site of the old building, near ConstitutionBeach at 61 Bayswater St., is the new 6,000-square-foot clubhouse. The building cost about $1 million to construct.

“It’s a much happier time now, looking back over the past year since the grand re-opening,” says club commodore Bruce Alba. “This had been the place where we all went to relax, to meet people. The five years we didn’t have a club were difficult. It was like a second home for many of us and it was gone. But that’s all different now.”

“This is a social center, for the entire community,” says vice commodore Lenny Gaudino. “It’s good to be back with a place to meet up and to really enjoy our boating leisure time. It’s only been about a year and we already have weddings, showers and birthday parties planned. The club feels right again.”

The new clubhouse is in many ways similar to the original building, Alba says. “Most of the changes were made to the interior,” he says. “We installed an elevator for our elderly residents. We have four who are over 90. Our first floor is now our function hall, which had been on the second floor. We still have a member’s area, which is on the second floor, and a bar. It’s nice.”

Watching their original, historic club burn down wasn’t so nice. Club members didn’t have a lot of time to react once the fire was discovered. “We were playing cards when we saw smoke come up from near the bar,” Gaurdino recalls. “It all seemed like it happened so fast. We ran outside to see where the smoke was coming from. The wind was blowing ferociously and the flames went up fast. The rest is history.”

“We all knew from the start we were in trouble,” says deputy fire chief David Mager with the Boston Fire Department. “The big problem was the wind.”

Club members called 911 at 3:46 p.m., according to Mager’s official fire report. When the fire began, the wind was blowing from the southwest at nearly 35 knots with frequent gusts reaching almost 60 knots. The flames were fanned horizontally under the building, which was constructed on top of pilings. When the first responders arrived a small fire and heavy smoke were visible. The second alarm was rung shortly after the first responders got to the scene.

“I arrived shortly after the second alarm,” Mager says. “There was a tremendous amount of black smoke coming up off the building. With the wind blowing as bad as it was I was concerned for the rest of the buildings in the neighborhood.”

At 3:55 p.m. Mager ordered the third alarm. In all, nine alarms were rung and 2-1/2 hours passed before the 200 firefighters were finally able to extinguish the flames. Burning embers, blown along in the strong wind, ignited and eventually destroyed two multifamily homes, and damaged the pier. A number of other homes were damaged and, initially, 40 people weren’t allowed to return to their homes. Several people attempted to put out fires with their own hoses. Seventeen of the 28 boats stored on the property, parked on trailers in a parking lot adjacent to the clubhouse and ranging from 19 to 40 feet, were destroyed. The fire caused $2.5 million in damages. “This was one of the most difficult and toughest fires we’ve had in Boston,” BFD Chief of Department Paul A. Christian said in the report. Four firefighters suffered burns on their faces and necks from the flying brands, according to Mager’s report, but no one else was injured.

“We had to evacuate many people to shelters that day,” Mager recalls. “The place looked like a war zone. There were ashes and debris all over the streets. A number of other buildings were damaged. We had to shut down the power in the neighborhood.”

Alba also remembers the scene after the fire. “I only lived two minutes away, so I was there for a good portion of the fire,” he says. “The wind was so bad you’d have a tough time standing in one place. I remember the only thing left standing on the building was the chimney. That’s it. Looking around at everyone’s sad faces was pretty difficult.”

A lot of those same faces helped rebuild the clubhouse. “Club members tried to do as much of the work as they could,” he says. “Every weekend, practically, members were on-site banging nails, sawing wood. Everyone pitched in and helped out.”

Alba also says he’s confident that the same community spirit that helped the club members rebuild after the fire will continue. “It feels good to be able to do things like have functions again,” Alba says. “People here aren’t only looking out for themselves and their boats, which is nice. Everyone looks out for each other.”