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4-alarm blaze hits famous market

DeLuca’s owner plans to reopen

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By Noah Bierman and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / July 9, 2010

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For 105 years, it has been a Charles Street institution, where Beacon Hill dowagers shopped for provisions alongside servants and students and where these days urbanites stalk the narrow aisles for single-malt Scotch, melon wedges, and imported prosciutto.

Yesterday, DeLuca’s Market burned while dozens of customers anxiously watched 75 firefighters battle a four-alarm fire that started in the basement and raged for hours. No one was seriously injured, but firefighters say it will probably take months to repair the damage, meaning neighborhood regulars and map-wielding tourists who come to glimpse the place where John F. Kennedy once bought his groceries will have to go elsewhere for their bottled water.

“Everybody goes to DeLuca’s,’’ said Roz Porter, who shops there two or three times a day with a woman she takes care of on Chestnut Street. “We know everybody in there, and everybody knows us.’’

Virgil Aiello, owner of the store and the small apartment building above it, said he plans to reopen, just as the family did 27 years ago after another fire. A note posted on the store’s website directed customers to a second location on Newbury Street. Aiello stood on an adjacent sidewalk yesterday, amid the firetrucks, talking on his cellphone.

The mother of an upstairs tenant came to him in tears, carrying photos of the room her daughter lived in and of the famous DeLuca’s façade. She hugged him.

“The store itself is a landmark,’’ Aiello said. “It’s a small family-run business that’s continued for three generations.’’

Joseph S. DeLuca, an Italian immigrant, bought the store in 1919, and it has not left the family since. It is the oldest grocery in Boston, according to its website, and, for many, the kind of place that grounds one of the city’s most storied neighborhoods.

Andrew Zarins, 17, a high school student who lives a few blocks away, has been working at DeLuca’s for a week and a half, but already knows the regular customers by name.

“You basically see the faces of the neighborhood here,’’ he said. “All the Beacon Hill characters come here.’’

When Zarins came to work at 7 a.m. yesterday, the lights would not come on. Three-and-a half hours later, he was in the produce basement loading mangos, bananas, and strawberries for a delivery when the electrical box caught his attention.

“I heard popping and I saw, I wouldn’t say a ball of fire, [but] a big flash of orange light,’’ he said.

Zarins rushed upstairs and told his co-workers about the pop and flash and the smoke he smelled. The workers also heard the popping and saw the store lights flashing.

An off-duty firefighter from Ohio, who was shopping there, told employees to stay out of the basement and would not leave until he made sure everyone else was safe, according to Zarins and two other employees.

Firefighters found it difficult to extinguish the fire in the basement, where cardboard boxes, liquor, and produce caught fire, said Steve MacDonald, Boston Fire Department spokesman. They poured water in from the outside until sometime after noon, when they were finally able to gain entry.

Three firefighters were treated for minor injuries and released from a local hospital, said MacDonald. One suffered a shoulder injury, one an ankle injury, and one had heat exhaustion, he said.

MacDonald said there was smoke in every apartment above the store, and “the reality is that people will be displaced for months, not weeks.’’

Hours later, as employees watched the firefighters at work, customers wandering through the neighborhood stopped to make sure no one was hurt.

Martha Huntley, a former Beacon Hill resident who dropped off her daughter near the store, parked her car and walked over after encountering a police officer at a barricade.

“I asked him what’s burning. He said, ‘DeLuca’s.’ I’m like ‘Noooo!’ ’’ she said.

She considered the old creaky floors and the low shelving. “It’s not like walking into Stop & Shop, right?’’ she said.

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent L. Finch contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com; Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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