Remembering Flegel’s furniture store fire 40 years ago today

by Harold Schapelhouman on July 31, 2023

Forty years ago on July 31, 1983, sometime before 3:00 pm on a lazy, mid-summer Sunday afternoon in downtown Menlo Park, the normal quiet was disrupted by two young men yelling that Flegel’s Home Furnishing store was on fire.

The 16,500 square foot family-run furniture store was located at 870 Santa Cruz Avenue and was closed on Sunday. Mark Flegel was at his home in Atherton and recalls getting a phone call telling him the store was on fire. He said that the store was in the midst of its “summer sale” and the day before had been one of the very busiest of the summer season. After hanging up the phone, he immediately jumped into his car and headed directly for the store.

Menlo Park Fire District Station 6 is located at 700 Oak Grove Avenue in downtown Menlo Park not far from Flegel’s. The station’s apparatus room doors were open when the emergency call came in “structure fire, 870 Santa Cruz Avenue, Flegel’s Furniture Store” the dispatcher said. Captain Curt Berger looked out the open doorway and could already see heavy dark smoke billowing up into the sky. Once in the fire engine he radioed “smoke showing from the fire station.”

Moments later Engine 6 pulled up in front of the furniture store on Santa Cruz Avenue, and Berger radioed they had a “working fire.” Menlo Rescue 1, Truck 1 and Battalion 1 also arrived on-scene with Battalion Chief Peter Chanteloup serving as the Incident Commander. He ordered the Truck personnel to the roof for vertical ventilation and told the Rescue personnel to force entry through the front door of the store so Engine 6 personnel could stretch a hose line into the store to extinguish the fire.

Additional fire units and personnel were directed to the rear of the store to also force entry and to stretch hose lines inside the building. When Mark Flegel arrived, police were blocking Santa Cruz Avenue so he went to the rear parking lot where he found firefighters ready to force entry into his store. After identifying himself, he used his keys to open the back door.

Once the door was opened, firefighters were met with a thick, dark black and gray wall of super-heated smoke. He explained that this was a storage and office area, the entrance to the showroom was down a hall way. As the firefighters disappeared into the smoke, he noticed they seemed to be hitting their heads on something. To his dismay, he quickly realized it was the door to the wall safe, and it had been opened.

Out front, Captain Berger and Firefighters Carr and Fraone masked up after forcing entry through the heavy wood and glass front door. They, too, were met by a wall of heavy black and gray smoke. Frank Fraone recalled that the crew made a quick right turn after going inside and then made a left turn after finding one of the main corridors through the showroom.

“We were about 30 or 40 feet inside the store, and we never saw the typical glow of a fire through the smoke. So we opened up the hose line to see if it would kick up — nothing”.

The heat was becoming oppressive, even in their protective gear. Fraone recalled Captain Berger saying: “I don’t like it, let’s get out of here!”

The crew had just exited the front entry when Mark Flegel approached the front door with a similar intent to unlock it. He recalls a firefighter grabbing and pushing him out of the way just as the smoke simultaneously ignited causing a “flashover.” The front display windows were replaced by a wall of fire and flames that also horizontally shot through the broken glass pains in the front door.

Chief Chanteloup knew more personnel would be needed for the fire, so he called for a second alarm which would add two more engines and a ladder truck to the incident. As he looked up, the flashover occurred sending him for cover behind his car. He quickly moved the vehicle to the other side of the Santa Cruz Avenue so the paint wouldn’t be blistered from the heat of the fire and then calmly called in an additional third alarm to the fire.

After using the aerial ladder on Truck 1 to gain access to the roof of the furniture store, Firefighter Doug DeMartini recalls that they set about cutting a series of inspection holes to better judge the movement and severity of the fire below them. Then they started cutting some larger ventilation holes to relieve the smoke pressure and levels within the building.

They had cut several of these holes in the roof with crews specifically in the rear inside of the building reporting that smoke levels were rising. However, conditions on the roof were quickly deteriorating in terms of the strength and stability of the roof itself. DeMartini said the firefighters started to “step through the roof membrane.” Recognizing the roof was compromised, they quickly got off the roof.

Mark Flegel recalls watching the firefighters continually beat back the fire and repeatedly come out for a new breathing air cylinder and then go right back in to fight the fire. Fraone recalls a second flashover occurring as they finally got into the corner of the show room under a mezzanine area and could see it burning. Equipped with the largest mobile hose line — a 2-1/2 diameter hose and straight bore nozzle — Captain Tom Smith and Firefighters Mariani and Fraone extinguished the last of the stubborn fire.

The fire fight had started at 3:00 pm and lasted an hour and forty-five minutes. The fire was deemed under control at 4:45 pm. The three-alarm fire with a total of 30 firefighters assigned to it is still the single largest and most destructive fire in the history of downtown Menlo Park causing over $2 million in fire loss.

That said, the fire was contained to the structure of origin and never spread to the businesses on either side of the fire. Today, half of the commercial buildings in downtown Menlo Park still are not equipped with fire suppression systems due to their age and legacy code exemptions. Two other significant commercial building fires have occurred in the downtown area since 1983.

The furniture store fire resulted in several “close calls” for the Menlo Park Fire District Firefighters due to the two flashovers and deteriorating roof conditions. Three firefighters, Captain Peters, Glenn Grant and John Brenner suffered minor injuries.  Mark Flegel credits the unknown firefighter who grabbed and pushed him out of the way with saving his life. After a joint investigation with Menlo Police, the fire was deemed arson, possibly used to conceal the robbery.

Mark Flegel believes one of the two young men who were yelling that the store was on fire could have been a prior employee with a key to the store acquired nefariously. After checking all of the proceeds, only $126 dollars in cash was unaccounted for, and no one has ever been arrested for the robbery or arson.

Four days after the fire, Mark’s dad relocated the business to a smaller 5,000 square foot space around the corner on Oak Grove Avenue. The thieves had placed the business’s books on the floor below the open safe. While water logged, they were salvageable. As for the summer sale invoices totaling $60,000 in orders (almost entirely in personal checks), miraculously they had remained on the desk of an office that went untouched by fire or water. The company’s customer information card files were also saved, allowing Flegel’s to reach out to all their customers to let them know they were still in business.

With the business’s core items intact, continuity of operations was quickly restored. Furniture was reordered and deliveries, as promised, were made. After settling with their insurance company, Mark said construction permits were fast tracked and reconstruction of a new 24,000 square foot store with a fire suppression system was started on December 2, 1983. The store achieved a soft opening on May 15, 1984, just short of one year after the fire. Mark credits his family and staff for that amazing success and a come back story from the ashes of this unusual incident.

Footnote: Flegel’s Design, now located at 1010 El Camino Real in Menlo Park has announced it is closing.

Harold Schapelhouman is the retired chief of Menlo Park Fire Protection District

Top photo: Battalion Chief Peter Chanteloup directs fire operations on Santa Cruz Avenue and Evelyn Street during the Flegels Home Furnishing Store Fire. Menlo Engine 5 supplied both hose and water while Truck 1 placed the aerial ladder to the roof for vertical ventilation operations

Second photo: Menlo Engine 5 uses a deck gun to suppress a flashover after the front windows blew out of the building and a fireball engulfed the entire furniture showroom

Photo credit: Menlo Fire


Mark Flegel August 01, 2023 at 10:50 am

Excellent. Thanks Harold for an accurate account of the fire. Reading your story made it seem like it occurred just yesterday to me. Mark

Mark Flegel August 01, 2023 at 10:59 am

Harold, your account of the events that day brought back to my mind vivid memories. The fire fighters were not risk takers but smartly determined to put out that fire quickly. Amazingly adjacent buildings suffered no damage. MP Fire Department is professional all the way. It could have been worst. Thanks to my father a phoenix rose from the ashes. His positive attitude kept the company together so it could thrive and continue to serve the community.

Bill Hembey August 07, 2023 at 6:24 pm

Thanks Harold for taking on these very interesting challenges that the Meno Park firefighters have always been able to adjust to and conquer.
It always starts with great training and the dedication from the firefighters to serve and protect their community.

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