By Joe Anuta
The 83-year legacy of a Maspeth bar and restaurant went up in flames late Sunday night just hours before O’Neil’s was completely gutted by a five-alarm fire.
A large crowd of residents stood in the street and watched the neighborhood institution burn to the ground throughout the night.
“Hundreds of people were out,” said George O’Neil, owner of the bar. “And do you know what they were doing? They were crying.”
The blaze began at around 11:30 p.m. and originated in the basement kitchen, according to firefighters at the scene.
Employees of the restaurant said that after an uncontrollable grease fire, several cooks ran up the stairs amid smoke and yelled for everyone to get out.
The 20 or so people patronizing and working at the bar were all evacuated by the time firefighters arrived at the scene.
Two girls who lived next door had to flee their house and the FDNY had to evacuate the apartment building next door, according to Deputy Chief Mark Cuccurullo of the FDNY.
Firefighters from the Maspeth firehouse battled the blaze in the first shift and then were relieved by more of the city’s Bravest from other firehouses. In total, 13 men were taken to the hospital for minor injuries, but no one was seriously hurt.
The fire was out by 5 a.m., but firefighters were still spraying the smoldering rubble at noon, watching to see if any part of the blaze rekindled.
Residents were still out in large numbers, staring at the lone brick facade and watching the fire marshals inspect the damage.
The bar was first opened in 1928 by O’Neil’s father, and served not just as a place to grab food and a beer, but as a gathering point for the neighborhood and borough.
Residents entrusted the establishment to play host to some of the most pivotal moments in their lives.
“I had my son’s communion here,” resident Mike Nooney said. “This is a shame. It was the kind of place where you knew the waitresses and the managers.”
Other residents held funeral gatherings and bridal showers inside the storied walls. Many of those people were on hand Monday morning as they approached O’Neil in tears to offer their condolences.
City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) was also on hand to offer her support.
“O’Neill’s Restaurant has been a staple in Maspeth and has served the people of Queens for almost a century. Last night’s tragic fire was a loss for the whole community and serves as a reminder that, no matter how bad the budget is, it remains critically important to protect our fire services,” she said in a statement.
O’Neill’s family was also on hand to see the blackened shell of the bar.
“People relied on this place,” said Tara Pyle, O’Neil’s daughter. “There were so many memories. A place can be rebuilt, but we won’t be able to replace all the pictures on the walls. Movie stars and athletes visited.”
And many of those athletes played for the New York Mets, who used to hang out at the bar in the 1980s.
O’Neil recalled the night when the Mets won the 1986 World Series. They chose to come to O’Neil’s after the game.
“Word got out that they were coming,” O’Neil said. “We had to drive them in the back way. They had to hop over fences to get to the bar.”
The street was so crowded hardly anyone could get in.
But the bar was important for the neighborhood as well.
“Friday and Saturday were the best. Everybody from the neighborhood was there,” Steve Mincieli said. “If you didn’t see anybody all week, they knew where you were, and you knew where they were.”
O’Neil has never left the neighborhood. He lives across the street from the bar, and less than a block from the house he grew up in.
After getting out of the military in the 1950s, he expanded the bar his father had opened. He hopes to rebuild and reopen as soon as possible.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.