Menemsha investigation may not point to boathouse

Captain Verne Gifford, Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England commander, urged people not to assume that the July 12 fire, which destroyed the Coast Guard boathouse, the dock, and several private vessels, began in the boathouse.

The Coast Guard captain said Friday that the fire investigation has involved investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Massachusetts State Police, the State Fire Marshall, the Chilmark fire chief, and the Chilmark police chief.

“My conclusion, although it is unofficial, is I don’t think the same statements that were made on Monday [July 12, the day of the fire], which is that the fire originated from the boathouse, would be made today,” Captain Gifford said. “I think that we learned some things and hopefully when that investigation is revealed in a couple of weeks, everyone will be much the wiser as to how that fire started.”

Captain Gifford joined a meeting of local, state and federal officials Friday in Menemsha. Christopher Adams from the Hyannis office of Congressman Bill Delahunt organized the meeting, which was intended to bring together all involved parties.

Chilmark selectman Jonathan Mayhew, a commercial fisherman, said he is concerned about the investigators’ initial findings. Mr. Mayhew asked that investigators work more closely with Chilmarkers.

Captain Gifford said that although it is a federal investigation, agencies at all levels had participated in the investigation. He said the process is built on consensus, and any judgment on cause will be subject to peer review.

Kurt N. Schwartz, the acting director for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and undersecretary for law enforcement and fire services, assured those in the room that the investigation will be thorough and independent. Mr. Schwartz said he had confidence in the ATF and, he added that, in a sense, his office is a completely detached party.”I have no concern about the integrity of the process,” he said.

In comments to The Times following the meeting, Mr. Mayhew said his concern is about a suggestion that the fire might have begun in a boat owned by a commercial fisherman and the fact that no fire was seen coming from the boat when the evacuation of the building began.

During the discussion, Mr. Adams said Congressman Bill Delahunt is chairman of the Coast Guard caucus, and that the boathouse will be rebuilt.

Dennis Jason, Chilmark harbormaster, said the harbor is back in business.

Chief Olsen told the group that an individual had questioned one of his crew about the fire and the pace of the cleanup. Mr. Olsen said anyone with questions or comments should speak directly to him.

Asked yesterday about tensions arising from the fire, Mr. Olsen said that other than that incident he is not aware of any problems but that people were obviously concerned.

He said Coast Guard crews were unable to move boats following the fire because they were not authorized by investigators to do so while the investigation continued.

And, in a Letter to the Editor published this week. Mr. Jason appealed for patience.

The Coast Guard once again asked that anyone who took photos of the area just before the fire, or who saw the first indication of smoke or flames, to contact the Coast Guard at 508-645-2661.