Dan Prowten, longtime firefighter, dies in house fire
An early morning house fire Saturday on Christiantown Road in the Indian Hill section of West Tisbury killed Daniel E. Prowten, 63, a West Tisbury firefighter and well-known Island builder.
West Tisbury firefighters received the fire call describing a completely involved house at 5:05 am, John Early, assistant West Tisbury fire chief, said. Chief Manuel Estrella 3rd and several members of the West Tisbury fire department arrived at the house soon after the call. The first piece of equipment, West Tisbury engine 722, arrived at approximately 5:20 am.
Firefighters realized at once that the house belonged to one of their own, Daniel Prowten, Mr. Early said. Firefighters did not know if Mr. Prowten was in the house, which was completely in flames.
Due to the size of the fire and extreme cold, about seven degrees, Chief Estrella asked for mutual aid. Firefighters from around the Island responded to the call. Units from Chilmark, Aquinnah, Edgartown, and Tisbury helped West Tisbury with the battle. Tisbury provided a ladder truck and Edgartown a dive truck capable of resupplying air bottles.
Tri-Town EMTs and West Tisbury police also provided assistance to the firefighters and family members at the scene.
After firefighters extinguished the blaze, they made a grim discovery. "It was probably around 10 am that we recovered the body of Daniel Prowten," an emotional Mr. Early said in a telephone call Saturday afternoon. "He was a member of this department for more than 30 years and recently stepped down as a lieutenant after serving in that capacity for maybe 15 or 20 years, so it's been a rough one."
In a show of respect, firefighters and EMTs formed two lines as Mr. Prowten's flag-draped remains were removed from the scene.
Local investigators and an investigator from the state fire marshal's office who arrived in the morning examined the scene to determine the cause.
"We believe the fire was accidental in nature," Stephen D. Coan, state fire marshal, told The Times Monday. "There is nothing to indicate that it was suspicious or a deliberately set fire."
Mr. Coan said investigators had identified an area where the fire began, but he would not say what the specific cause of the fire was, pending further analysis.
Mr. Coan said that when a fatality occurs, his office attempts to learn what might have been done to prevent it. One of the first questions asked is if the smoke alarms were functioning. He said fire investigators may not be able to provide a conclusive answer, due to very heavy damage to the property.
Late yesterday, Jennifer Mieth, a spokesman for the fire marshal's office, told The Times there would be no final determination made on the cause of the fire until the autopsy results were complete, a process that would likely take about six weeks.
The smell of smoke
Abigail Higgins, a neighbor, said the smell of smoke woke her. At first, she thought it was from a chimney downdraft. She said one of her dogs began to bark hysterically. It was unusual and not the normal sort of nighttime barking caused by a passing animal, she said.
M. Higgins got up to shut a window left open for ventilation. She heard what sounded like gunfire. "I looked out the other bedroom window and I saw the flames, and it was already burning hard," she said.
Ms. Higgins called 911. She immediately dressed and went to the Prowten house.
"I ran up to the door, and it was all flames behind the door," Ms. Higgins said.
Tim Williamson, a neighbor and Oak Bluffs police lieutenant, also reported the fire and then ran to the Prowten house.
The fire was already very advanced, Mr. Early said. "In spite of his [Mr. Williamson's] efforts to bang on every door and window that he was able to approach, he was unable to raise a response," he said.
Cold temperatures and wind made the fight particularly difficult. Mr. Early said the outside temperature was about eight degrees when he left his own house to answer the call. "Everything froze up," he said.
Mr. Early said his department received enormous and welcome cooperation from the other Island towns. "It really makes a huge difference in this kind of horrendous situation," he said.
Alerted by Ms. Higgins to the fire, Pat Waring of West Tisbury, Mr. Prowten's friend and former wife, called Diana Waring, her daughter with Mr. Prowten. Mother and daughter went to Mr. Prowten's home in the early morning darkness.
In a telephone call Tuesday evening, Pat Waring said she feared the worst when she saw the flames that lit the night sky. Many of the firefighters battling the blaze had known her daughter from birth and did their best to comfort her, she said.
Pat Waring said that she and her daughter were "overcome with gratitude, respect and appreciation" for all that the firefighters tried to do in very difficult circumstances.
Ms. Waring said Tim Williamson and his wife brought them into their house to warm up, and they served tea. She said the outpouring of community support at the fire scene and in the days that followed has been greatly appreciated.
The family plans a memorial service and celebration of Dan Prowten's life at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury at 1 pm, Saturday, February 13 (for more information see page 30).
An intimate experience
Echoing many of the comments posted to the news update that appeared on The Times website Saturday, Rez Williams of West Tisbury wrote, "Lucy [Mitchell] and I are heartbroken and send our best wishes to Diana and Pat. We remember Danny fondly with his twinkle, grit and humor - and his interest in the arts. We also sympathize with his fellow firefighters and first responders whose company he was so proud to be a part of."
Speaking about the nature of firefighting across the state, Mr. Coan said he understands the intimacy of small communities and the strain a serious fire presents for local firefighters, most of whom are volunteers. "I am sure it was very difficult for those firefighters that morning to know that as they were extinguishing that fire, inside was one of their own," he said.
"This was not an urban fire department responding to a location they are unfamiliar with," Mr. Coan said. "This was a group of town residents who basically volunteer their time to keep their fellow citizens safe from fire, responding to one of their own."
Speaking generally and not with respect to Saturday's fire, the state fire marshal said wintertime is when most fires occur. "It has a lot to do with how people try to heat their homes," he said.
Again, not speaking about Saturday's fire, Mr. Coan said his department has undertaken a public information campaign to keep people safe. "Clearly, smoke alarms are a valuable and critical tool in survivability during residential fires," Mr. Coan said. "That early warning for that very short period of time and opportunity to escape a fire is so critical."