Thunder Bay

'So proud of these firefighters:' Underground Gym escapes major damage from neighbouring blaze

Peter Panetta was expecting to see major damage when he walked through the door of The Underground Gym for the first time since a fire destroyed two neighbouring buildings, but that wasn't the case.
Underground Gym operator Peter Panetta (Matt Vis/CBC)

Peter Panetta was expecting to see much worse when he walked through the door of The Underground Gym for the first time since a fire destroyed two neighbouring buildings.

Panetta, the long-time founder and operator of the Thunder Bay drop-in centre for underprivileged youth, said he had been told by fire department officials that while the building had been spared from fire, there was some water damage.

But that wasn't the case when he opened the door.

There's nothing wrong, he said.

"They did a fantastic job. I'm so proud of these firefighters and what they did to save this building for the kids," Panetta said. "It's amazing. There is no damage here."

"When I came in here, just in utter shock, in a positive way. "

A late Tuesday night fire on Simpson Street destroyed the adjacent Hells' Angels clubhouse, and a neighbouring cabinets shop.

Panetta learned about the blaze that night after getting a voicemail from somebody he knew, who said it looked like The Underground Gym was on fire.

"I knew I couldn't do anything about it. I wasn't going to wake up my grandchildren and go down and have a look," Panetta said.

"There's nothing I can do. I just pondered the options for about an hour in bed laying there thinking, 'hmm that's an interesting scenario what am i going to do?' And then in the morning I looked at some of the footage on Facebook and I said 'yeah, that doesn't look too good."

Panetta said boxing the central activity at The Underground Gym, but kids can get music lessons, shoot a game of pool, read books and have a bite to eat.

"It means everything to them," Panetta said.

The Underground Gym has a small bus, which Panetta said is used to take the youth on outings into the community. He said a group went bowling on Wednesday night and then swimming on Thursday night, while the facility is without heat and power.

"They love the outings anyway," he said. "It's another option for the kids and works out really, really well. Even if we can't open it next week we'll be able to access other external activities."

Panetta, who originally bought the buildings for $200 through a city tax sale, said they're in a state of disrepair, despite emerging from the fire unscathed. The floor under the boxing ring has started sinking in and the roof leaks.

He said he thought the fire would be the final "nail in the coffin" of the buildings, and has started to look at other possible locations.

The outpouring on social media by people who thought the facility was lost shows important it is, he said.

"I'm grateful for the kindness people have shown, and that just goes to show the significance of having not only a facility like this here, but how we really need them all over the city," Panetta said. "We need facilities that are accessible for the children.