By Danny Schrafel
If you walk into Tilden Brakes today as a Huntington outsider, you’d never know the place had been gutted by fire nearly a year ago.
On Wednesday, a Ford van was on a lift that can securely hoist a 7-1/2 ton truck high enough for a mechanic to walk underneath it. On the ground, the staff was hard at work getting the kinks out of a hulking 6.4-liter V-10 engine that belonged to an equally mammoth pickup truck.
So it’s safe to say that, just a bit more than 10 months after a massive blaze gutted Tilden Brakes on July 26, 2013, the iconic, family-owned auto repair shop is not only back on its feet, but stronger than before.
Tom Montefusco, who owns the shop with his brother, Pat, and their parents, Joe and Nancy Montefusco, said Wednesday that repairs and upgrades at their 800 New York Ave. headquarters are “about 99-percent complete.” The most stubborn spot to clean up, he said, is above the garage doors, which “peeled on us twice.”
Hopefully, he said, the third time will be the charm and they can put the finishing touches, and a coat of trademark Tilden yellow, on the exterior.
The extensive damage also provided an opportunity to overhaul and modernize the facility. They raised the roof about 3 feet and added new lifts that can handle 15,000 and 10,000 pounds, as well as a “double-scissor lift” that is ideal for low-clearance vehicles like sportscars. They also went green every way they could, adding larger windows, replacing their oil heater and shifting toward high-efficiency lighting.
“One of my customers said, ‘You made a nice batch of lemonade out of the lemons they got you,’” Tom said.
Sweet lemonade, indeed, after firefighters last year said the blaze “95-percent destroyed” the auto shop, with especially extensive damage to the roof, according to an Aug. 1, 2013 Long Islander News report.
The incident, eyewitnesses said, was caused when a worker who was replacing a gas pump, a process which generates fumes, accidentally dropped a single light bulb, which shattered, sparked and set the building on fire. That employee was badly burned and was rushed to Huntington Hospital with second-degree burns over one-fifth of his body.
Immediately after the fire, the focus was getting the business up and running as quickly as possible.
“Our main concern was to keep our employees employed and keep some continuity in the community to make sure people knew we were not laying down and giving up,” Tom said.
The community quickly rallied around Tilden Brakes and helped lift them up from the ashes almost immediately. One customer, whose motorhome Tilden was working on, lent them the RV, which they used for office space immediately after being displaced. About two weeks after the fire, they were more settled in a trailer on the grounds of Islandwide Car Service up the road at 651 New York Ave.
Not only did reopening remotely provide normality for the staff, it did the same for their loyal customers.
“They came here as they normally would. They would drop off their car and pick up their car at the same location. We just had a longer driveway,” Tom said, with a laugh.
The Tilden Brakes crew returned to 800 New York Ave. four months ago, during the second week of February.
“We were still painting and fixing up some of the lifts, but we had enough to start working,” Tom said.
They rebuilt and refurbished as they repaired cars, slowly but surely getting fully back to normal. All the while, the Huntington community was right by their side. One man even hand-painted a custom Tilden Brakes sign, which now hangs in the new workshop. Once the exterior is complete, they’ll start preparing for a formal grand reopening celebration.
“The stories of what people have done for us are amazing,” Tom said. “They’re very loyal, and sticking with us under these conditions, it meant a lot to us.”