Fire claims Cafe Moxie, harms bookstore
On the morning of July 4th, many local firefighters were preparing to celebrate Independence Day, getting ready to appear in the traditional 4th of July parade in Edgartown. The work of buffing up fire trucks and shining dress uniform buttons was interrupted shortly after 9 am, however, by the wail of a fire alarm calling them to Main Street in Vineyard Haven.
What they found there was in many ways the worst-case scenario for a fire on Martha's Vineyard. Though the Tisbury fire station was only a block away, and volunteer firefighters began arriving on the scene in a matter of minutes, by the time the firefighters and equipment turned down the congested business district, black smoke poured out of the Cafe Moxie restaurant at 48 Main Street. Flames had already worked their way up interior walls and into the ceiling of the popular eatery.
"As the first truck pulled up," said Tisbury fire chief John Schilling, "the windows blew out. We were unable to do an interior attack. The building was unsafe from the start."
The restaurant shared a wall with Bunch of Grapes, the well-known bookstore, and shared outdated, fire-vulnerable, wood frame "balloon" construction with most of the neighboring buildings in the congested business district. The possibility of the fire spreading to other buildings was very real.
Tisbury police Chief John Cashin said a Tisbury police officer patrolling Main Street on a bicycle saw heavy smoke pouring from the basement of Cafe Moxie and called the Dukes County communications center to report a working fire.
Other Tisbury police officers were on the scene within seconds. They ran into adjacent buildings on both sides of the street to evacuate anyone inside. Many of the businesses were not open to the public yet. Chief Cashin said that, in the few minutes it took for firefighters to arrive, flames quickly spread throughout the interior of Cafe Moxie. He saw the curtains catch fire and then the ceiling.
Austin Racine, chef and business owner of Cafe Moxie, was in the kitchen of his restaurant preparing for a holiday fully booked with reservations. Though he was only a few feet from the source of the unfolding tragedy, the ferocious speed of the flames made his efforts tragically inadequate.
Photo by David Kuchta
"The whole dining room was full of smoke," Mr. Racine said. "I ran downstairs, I couldn't get downstairs. I ran and got a fire extinguisher. I got to the back door where I saw the flames and shot the fire extinguisher at it, but it was up in a matter of minutes."
Mr. Racine, a popular and respected chef, and his partner Katrina Yekel began operating the restaurant this spring, after a complete renovation of the interior. The restaurant was their leap of faith into the ownership ranks of a food business. Until this spring, Mr. Racine worked as a chef at the ArtCliff Diner. Ms. Yekel worked at a local dental practice, but quit her job at the start of the summer season to work full-time at the restaurant. Mr. Racine watched helplessly from the street as the culmination of his life's work was consumed with flames. Friends and employees gathered to console him, and each other.
Photo by Steve Myrick
A column of flames rose through a hole in the roof where firefighters vented the fire. Dense smoke poured out, sometimes completely enveloping the two buildings and the surrounding streets. A small river of water poured down the front steps of the restaurant.
The staff of Bunch of Grapes was already at work when the fire began, preparing for one of their busiest days of the year. At the beginning of the summer season, the store was stacked to the rafters with books and merchandise, awaiting the thousands of summer visitors who flock annually to the award-winning bookstore to stock up on summer reading. The store was due to open at 9 am.
"I have a staff that is safe, that's my main concern," said Ann Nelson, who operated the bookstore for many years, before she sold the business to her son, Jon Nelson. Mr. Nelson was in Texas at the time of the fire. Ms. Nelson still owns the building.
"I am so grateful for every firefighter," said Ms. Nelson, as she brushed back tears. "We can rebuild. People, you can't replace." The structure of the bookstore remained standing, but Ms. Nelson said all of the books and merchandise inside were ruined by smoke and water damage.
Photo by Steve Myrick
The mutual aid agreement among the three down-Island towns calls for an automatic response once a fire is reported within the downtown districts of any town, so at the first alarm, both Oak Bluffs and Edgartown fire personnel were on the way with equipment. Each town responded with a ladder truck, and chief Schilling positioned the three trucks on surrounding streets, forming the first line of attack on the fire.
"Each one of them performed a role today that none of us could have done alone," said chief Schilling. "That's the way our system works. We all play well together. We all train together, we're all talking on, literally, the same frequency. That's something you don't often see off-Island."
Photo by Diana Waring
As firefighters worked from platforms at the end of the long mechanical arms of the ladder trucks, the flames spread to the common wall between the two buildings, charring the exterior wall and the eaves of Bunch of Grapes. Black smoke billowed from the second floor windows of the bookstore.
"Our biggest concern was the overhead wiring," said chief Schilling. "It really restrained our access. It was critical to get the power shut down as quickly as possible." NSTAR utility crews cut electrical power to all of downtown Vineyard Haven minutes after the fire was reported. Power was restored to much of the town center several hours later, but some businesses were without electricity well into the evening.
Photo by Diana Waring
Tisbury Emergency Management set up a first aid station in the alley next to the Capawock Theater, where they kept close medical supervision on firefighters who were working in very difficult conditions. The, hot, humid weather made battling the blaze difficult. Firefighters emerging from the bookstore after a shift inside the smoky building spoke of "very intense heat." Emergency medical personnel checked vital signs and kept the firefighters hydrated with cold drinks before rotating them back into the fire scene.
Hundreds of people gathered behind police tape, perched on nearby balconies, and even rooftops, to watch the firefighters work. Many had hands covering their faces in obvious shock and sadness. The overwhelming sense of the onlookers was sorrow, at the sight of the two popular Vineyard Haven businesses damaged or destroyed, on a street lined with American flags for the holiday. As the extent of the calamity became undeniable, Chief Cashin removed a large flag from in front of the burning buildings, and carried it across the street, so it would not be damaged by the smoke and water.
Photo by Par Waring
After the flames were finally under control, Chief Schilling gave the order to begin razing Cafe Moxie.
"We took the building down because the foundation was starting to collapse," said the chief. As a backhoe hauled down the front wall, four hours after the fire was first reported, small pockets of flame flared, and were quickly doused by firefighters. Several hours later, smoke was still wafting out of the rubble.
A quorum of Tisbury selectmen was among the onlookers. "This is your worst fear," said Tisbury selectman Denys Wortman, who traveled to the scene after hearing the call on a police scanner. "It was pretty obvious in a couple of seconds that it was going to be bad. This was supposed to be a happy day."
Selectmen Tristan Israel and Jeff Kristal were already looking ahead to blunt the impact of the lost business.
"We'll rebuild," said Mr. Kristal. "We'll pull together as a community as we always do."
Photo by Steve Myrick
"This corner," said Mr. Israel, "the bookstore and the restaurant, are a part of the economic engine that drives the town. We're ready to do everything we can to get government support, state and federal."
Long before the embers started to cool, the generosity of the Vineyard community was already beginning to surround those victimized by the fire with a cloak of support.
Photo by Steve Myrick
Ms. Nelson, held a note, passed to her by someone from the crowd, someone she didn't know, except for the name and phone number he included at the end of the message. "If you need help, I'll volunteer to move any books," the note said.
The most poignant moment of the long, catastrophic day came more than five hours after the first whiff of smoke drifted out of the basement of Cafe Moxie.
Across the street, a small group of the waiters and kitchen workers from the restaurant huddled around Mr. Racine. They comforted each other as the realization of lost jobs and lost dreams set in. Then a firefighter stepped up to the pile, and wrenched the square blue Cafe Moxie sign away from the smoldering rubble. The restaurant's owner and his staff broke into spontaneous applause, even mustered a cheer, as the charred sign was dragged across Main Street, where it might be saved. When the applause stopped, their hands returned to their eyes, to wipe away more tears.