“It’s one of those fires, as I said, among the top two largest fires I’ve been to in town,” said Marblehead’s Fire Chief Jason Gilliland 20 years after Tony’s Pizza fire.
Gilliland, who was a lieutenant at the time, oversaw Tony’s Pizza post-fire inspection, along with the state Fire Marshal’s office. The cause of the fire was determined to be the pizza grill radiating heat, which sparked the blaze.
“There’s usually a stainless steel wall, as a heat shield. That heat shield was directly against the wall but there was suppose to be an air space between it. They usually have an air gap between it, so air circulates and disperses the heat. Over the years that heat shield was right against the wall. The building was built in 1889 so the heat lowered the ignition temperature of the wood behind the wall to the point where it finally ignited,” said Gilliland.
The fire broke out in Marblehead’s Five Corners intersection at the three-story Gregory Building, 1 School St., erupting shortly before midnight on Feb. 19, 2003. At 11:43 p.m.the Marblehead Fire Department was alerted. Three minutes later, the first responders arrived.
“When I arrived on scene, our fire apparatus was already there and there were out-of-town apparatus arrived and the building was pretty much fully involved at that time,” said Gilliland.
The fire raged through the night, spewing ash and flames. Eventually, five alarms were struck. The Fire Department received aid from 10 engine companies, including Nahant and Swampscott and 58 firefighters joined the effort to put out the blaze that took them 11 hours until they stopped pouring water on the flames, at 10:40 a.m.
When asked if he has experience worst fires, 20 years after Tony’s Pizza fire, Gilliland responded, “That was a commercial building. I’ve had substantial house fires, but Tony’s Pizza or Pennies, they were commercial buildings, they were pretty large,” said Gilliland.
A concern to Gilliland, was the exposure of the fire to the YMCA, next door to Tony’s Pizza and the exposure directly across the street of the Five Corners area.
Gilliland recalled how firefighter James Carey was working his final shift before he retired. “For him that was quite a send off, a fire that substantial the day before he retired,” said Gilliland.
Rick Ashley, a photographer who rented the entire third floor, was in Tucson, Arizona during the fire. Ashley, receive a call from his wife saying, “It’s all gone, it’s all gone!”
“I thought the house has burnt down. I said ‘The house is gone?’ and she said, ‘no Tony’s Pizza.'”
“It’s horrible but it was a wonderful sense of relief. Oh it’s just the studio then,” he added.
Ashley lived in Marblehead since 1977, and was a photographer who at the time, shot so much film he would have giant trash bags filled with containers in his studio. At the time of the fire, those containers were blowing out of the building, “it was raining plastic film containers all over the place,” said Ashley.
Ashley recalled a police sargeant yelling to people, “pick these things up!”
“Things were blowing out of the building, and what it was, was empty plastic 35-millimeter film containers,” said Ashley.
When Ashely arrived at the fire scene, what struck him and still stays in his mind today, was how he could see through his windows at the stars. “it was quite a sight, quite a sight!”
Looking back, Ashley is happy nobody got hurt during the fire. All his losses have have turned into more work over the years.
The fire, prompted Ashely to move to Italy with his daughter for a few months until he was offered a job as a director for the photography department at Boston University.
From the fire, Ashley was able to obtain burned photos that blew out of the building, along with a few cameras, which he stores in his studio at the Masonic Temple, 62 Pleasant St. in Marblehead.
Prior to the fire, Ashley created a series called the “Marblehead Portrait Project” where he took 350 photographs of people in town, to create an archive of what people in town looked like back 20 years ago.
“Coming from Baltimore you hear, ‘Oh Marbleheaders, Mabrleheaders!’ I wanted to find what is a Marbleheader, can you tell by what they look like,” said Ashley.
“I did all these portraits, that whole archive burned up, but there were a handful, of photographs that blew out and I mean, they blew out of boxes, in the back of the studio, in a storage area,” he said.
In April of 2005, Tony’s Pizza rebuilt and reopend their doors, with a bigger and more spacious interior. The upper floors are rented as residential units.
When reached out to Tony Brogna, for the purpose of this story, Patricia Brogna, his wife, who is currently running Tony’s Pizza, did not want to recall the fire.