Firefighters from Tisbury, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown extinguished a fire that started in a large metal building at the Maciel Marine boatyard off Lagoon Pond Road in Vineyard Haven about 1 pm, Saturday.
A stiff northeast wind, a congested work area, and the abundance of hazardous materials stored in the building contributed to the difficulty of the firefighting job.
A team from the state fire marshal’s office arrived on the Island late Saturday to assist in the fire investigation. Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling said the investigation identified the location in the building where the fire originated.
“We learned where the fire started. What contributed to the source of the fire. They were unable to determine the exact source of the ignition,” Chief Schilling said. “At this point in time, the source of ignition remains and will be officially undetermined. They are also confident it was nothing intentional. It was purely accidental in nature.”
Mr. Schilling said the last person working in the building that day before the fire broke out is not linked in any way to a possible source of ignition.
“Sometimes you just don’t get the answers,” the fire chief said.
No one was injured. Damage was confined to the interior of the building used as a workplace and for storage of about 15 boats and numerous outboard engines.
Stored in the building was a volatile mix of containers that included paint, propane, gasoline, oil, lubricants, and solvents. Small explosions could be heard from inside as black, acrid smoke billowed from around doors, windows. and roof vents.
Plan of attack
Maciel Marine is at the west end of Lagoon Pond. It abuts several small cottages, the Tisbury Marketplace, Hinckley’s Lumber, and Ace Hardware.
Workers on the site had left the building around noon. The first fire call came at 12:55 pm.
Chief Schilling said in keeping with established protocols, any call for a fire at an Island boatyard triggers an automatic mutual aid response from Oak Bluffs and Edgartown. Within minutes of the first alarm, Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown firefighters began to arrive.
Volunteers dropped whatever they were doing on a clear fall day — errands, work, the normal activities of an Island weekend. Firefighters arrived without taking time to put on their firefighting gear. They would do that on the fly.
Chief Schilling said that in keeping with established plans for the Maciel Marine area, Oak Bluffs staged on the Tisbury Marketplace side of the complex. Edgartown staged by the cottages, and Tisbury approached from the street side.
The hazardous contents of the building dictated a careful plan of attack. “We wanted to have a good solid water line established before we went in,” Mr. Schilling said.
Tisbury initially connected to a fire hydrant opposite the boatyard but found there was insufficient pressure to fill the hose. They quickly turned to an alternative source — the nearby Lagoon.
The ABCs of firefighting
Chief Schilling maintained communication with his counterparts from Edgartown and Oak Bluffs as part of a unified command structure. As each department arrived at its assigned positions, each chief used a private channel to communicate with his respective crew.
The side of the building that faces the street is designated with the letter “A.” Following in a clockwise direction each side in a structure fire is designated with the letters, B, C, and D, Mr. Schilling explained.
“On the A-side of the building it was very evident that the main fire was in the center of the building.That’s where the flames were coming out under the side of the building and where the metal was discolored,” Mr. Schilling said.
“We had a master stream on that, trying to cool that and get some water under and over, trying to reduce the temperature. Edgartown was doing the same thing on the roof,” Mr. Schilling said. “We were trying to cool down the building while we were getting ready for our interior attack.”
The biggest danger firefighters faced Saturday was associated with the contents of the building.
“We knew that the stuff in there was deadly, and we could hear it blowing off. We knew that there was waste oil; we knew that there was gasoline; we knew there was propane, all of those things, we could hear them rumbling.”
The main concern when firefighters opened the door was not to introduce enough oxygen to create an explosion. “So we were trying to control our entrance into the building and make sure that when we did open it we had enough water backing up anybody, that should anything roll out, we had it covered,” Mr. Schilling said.
That strategy called for cutting a vent hole that would allow the superheated gases and heat to escape the structure. Normally it would have been cut at the highest point, but because the metal roof was considered unsafe, the cut was made high up on the side of the building.
A critical point in the battle came when a team of Oak Bluffs firefighters, Capt. Will deBettencourt and Lt. Joseph deBettencourt, standing in a basket on the end of a ladder extended from a ladder truck used a specialized firefighting circular chain saw called a K-12, provided by Tisbury, to cut the vent hole.
They peeled back the steel skin as smoke enveloped them. Through that vent hole, they brought a water cannon to bear on the interior fire.
On the other side of the building a Tisbury firefighter team entered the building through a door. They set up a large fan to direct a stream of air into the building to create positive pressure that would direct the smoke and gases out the vent. Another team broke windows on the side of the building and shot a steady stream of water inside.
Once the fire was extinguished, a new problem appeared. The water used to fight the fire was contaminated with petroleum products.
“We had to pivot from fighting a fire to not letting anything get into the Lagoon,” Mr. Schilling said.
Hazardous material (HazMat) teams responded. Oak Bluffs provided its oil spill response truck, stocked with absorbent mats and other specialized equipment used to create barriers. The Tisbury trailer was unavailable.
“We were successful in keeping everything confined to the site,” Mr. Schilling said.
Robert Maciel, Lagoon Pond bridge tender and owner with his wife, Barbara, of the property and business that bear his name since 1985, said he did not go near the fire scene Saturday.
“I didn’t dare go near there,” he said. “I put too much of my life into that business.”
Geoffrey Banfield, lessee with Robert Maciel’s son, Steven, of Maciel Marine, was in Florida where he got a call telling him the boatyard was on fire. Mr. Banfield returned to the Island Sunday.
Mr. Banfield said a man who lives in one of the small cottages was walking past, saw smoke, and called 911.
The fire department was there in four minutes,” Mr. Banfield told The Times in a telephone call Sunday.”You can’t beat that.”
In a telephone conversation Tuesday morning, Mr. Banfield said the environmental cleanup is proceeding. He said he would not know the full extent of the damage until boats could be removed and cleaned of soot.
Mr. Banfield said he is grateful for the quick response from all the Island fire departments and expressions of concern.
“This is the Vineyard,” Mr. Banfield said. “Everybody has offered a helping hand.” That included the nearby Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard and Edgartown Marine, which offered to help move boats and store boats.
“Everything is going as good as can be expected,” Mr. Banfield said Tuesday.
Earle “Sandy” Ray, chairman of the board of Martha’s Vineyard Insurance, insurer of Maciel Marine, was among the onlookers Saturday.
“When you consider that these are volunteers and they put themselves at risk, I thought the response was amazing,” Mr. Ray said. “I thought they did a great job containing it, and extinguishing it, and protecting the surrounding area. They deserve a lot of credit.”
The Maciel Marine fire was the third time in two weeks firefighters turned out to battle a blaze.
Fire broke out early Wednesday morning, Nov. 2, in a small cottage at 3 Hines Point. The entire Tisbury department responded to the 7 am call. The cause of that fire was a curtain on a hot bulb in a lamp, Mr. Schilling said.
Six days earlier on Friday, Oct. 28, the Tisbury department responded to a predawn fire that destroyed a house at 59 Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. One man was home at the time, but he was not injured. The cause of that fire remains under investigation.