Rampaging fire wounds Menemsha badly

The southwest wind blew the flames and smoke away from the shacks. — File photo by Kevin Oliver

A fast-moving fire that broke out at 2:42 pm Monday destroyed the Coast Guard boathouse in Menemsha, and its pier, a truck, several private boats and the wooden causeway that provided vehicle access to the fill dock on the west side of the harbor, stranding eight vehicles.

On Tuesday, fire investigators from several state and federal agencies examined the wreckage of the Coast Guard boathouse. The cause of the fire is still undetermined and remains under investigation.

The Chilmark Police and State Fire Marshall are seeking any photos of the fire in its early stages.

No one was injured, and the fire and destruction were largely confined to the Coast Guard boathouse and dock. Firefighters continued to put water on the smoldering ruins for hours after the fire was extinguished. Several firefighters were treated at the scene for heat exhaustion.

Yesterday morning, Chilmark harbormaster Dennis Jason said the harbor is closed to transient boaters. He said he hopes it may be opened for the weekend. “We are trying to get organized,” he said, as he juggled boats and available space around the harbor

Town officials met to discuss the situation Tuesday and again yesterday. Selectman Frank Fenner, who drove his own boat out of the harbor in smoke so thick he said it was dark as night, explained that the town is searching for floating docks it could use to provide a temporary solution.

The town is also considering how to remove the stranded vehicles. Mr. Fenner said a barge, now used to dredge West Basin, might be the ticket off for the vehicles.

Town administrator Tim Carroll estimated that more than 40 vessels were berthed in various town slips. He said damage was extensive to the drive-on west dock and pilings.

There is no estimate of damage yet, he said, or the extent of the town’s insurance coverage, or to what degree to which insurance would cover private boats.

The Coast Guard announced yesterday that Chief Warrant Officer Roger Gray is available between 8 am and 3 pm to answer any questions regarding the claims process for people who had property destroyed in the fire. The telephone number is 508-457-3240.

Like a war zone

But for a fortuitous wind and quick, often heroic action by emergency personnel from around Martha’s Vineyard, plus volunteers and bystanders, the blaze very nearly might have consumed much of the picturesque Chilmark village.

The fire broke out in the small commercial fishing port on a stiflingly hot, humid summer day. The blaze had all the ferocity of a wind-whipped winter northeaster. More than a dozen boats were destroyed or badly damaged, along with lots of fishing equipment and Coast Guard gear stored in the boathouse.

The blaze ignited nearby boats and burned through the mooring lines. One boat in flames floated across the harbor toward the Menemsha Texaco gas dock. Other boats drifted against fishing boats on Dutcher Dock. Harbor personnel and volunteers moved quickly to tow the boats out of the harbor helping to stop a spreading disaster.

One eyewitness told The Times, “It looked like a war zone.”

Chilmark volunteer firefighters under the direction of Chief David Norton arrived quickly. At the height of the blaze, all Island fire departments were asked to provide mutual aid, and all EMTs were called to respond to Menemsha. Oak Bluffs provided a firefighting boat that raced up Vineyard Sound and arrived to play a crucial role in the battle.

In the aftermath, all who witnessed the orange flames, felt the intense heat, or were enveloped in the choking black sooty smoke and floating ash agreed that it could have been much, much worse.

The boathouse contains a 1,000-gallon diesel tank and 500-gallon gasoline tank. Shielded pipes beneath the building fed fuel pumps, now destroyed, at the end of the Coast Guard dock. Old wooden fishing shacks and fishing gear line the congested harbor.

Even as the fire raged, witnesses began sending photos to The Times. Robert Fitzgerald, an artist from Waltham who was on the Island for a show opening at the Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs, was painting the iconic 71-year-old boathouse when the fire broke out. His dramatic photos, some of which appear on this page and more photos bystanders provided are available at mvtimes.com.

In an interview Tuesday, Menemsha Station commander Chief Jason Olsen stood in front of the charred shell of the boathouse and offered reassurance that his unit continues to provide 24/7 search and rescue coverage with assistance from outside units. “The goal is to be actively working from our unit by Friday,” he said.

Mr. Olsen said safety features shut off the boathouse fuel supply when the fire erupted and the specially designed pipes did not rupture. There was no visible evidence of fuel leakage.

He said he could not estimate the cost of the damage but that it would be high. Much of the station’s equipment was stored in the boathouse.

Mr. Olsen praised the Island community response and said he was thankful for the Oak Bluffs fireboat which, he said, helped push the fire back down the dock.

Mr. Olsen, who was in Woods Hole when the fire was reported but made a speedy return, said he was relieved and astonished that no one was hurt. “You can replace a boat but you can’t replace a life,” he said.

Smell of smoke

Menemsha in July is a village of many parts. On Monday afternoon, local commercial striped bass fishermen, some of the most skilled small boat fishermen in the state, were preparing for the start of the commercial bass season at midnight. Larger draggers were tied up alongside Dutcher Dock. Menemsha Beach, popular with families because it is staffed with a lifeguard and close to a public restroom and a steady supply of ice cream, was crowded on the 90-degree day.

Tourists and summer vacationers strolled along the bulkhead past the two local fish markets. Frank Fenner, the Chilmark selectman, was serving ice cream at the Galley, the popular sandwich shop at the head of the shack-lined lagoon.

Fishing boats and pleasure boats pulled up to the gas dock located behind Menemsha Texaco. Harbor slips were full.

Eleven of the 20 Coast Guardsmen stationed in Menemsha were on active duty. The 47-foot motor lifeboat, the backbone of the boat station rescue fleet, was tied up to the dock.

Chief Olsen, who took command in May, was in Woods Hole, returning a trailer he had used to move into his new home in the West Chop lighthouse.

One man, boatswain’s mate Patrick Bryant, a native of Nebraska who completed four years in the Navy then joined the Coast Guard nine years ago, was working out in the station weight room in the boathouse. He smelled smoke and went to investigate.

His initial thought was that a boat was on fire. Then he saw the flames coming in the windows. He ran out of the front of the building and jumped a string of flames.

He shouted to passersby to leave the area and to call 911. “They are already on the way,” someone said.

He sprinted for the station house and changed his clothes. Other crewmembers were racing the other way in an effort to board the motor lifeboat and get it away from the pier, but the pier was impassable.

The crew flagged down Chilmark harbormaster Dennis Jason and assistant harbormaster Cody Gray, 20, who arrived in an inflatable and ferried the crew to the boat. The crew immediately got the boat under way. Mr. Bryant, the coxswain, drove to the Menemsha gas dock where his crew picked him up.

The boat trained its hoses on the fire. “We went where we could help out,” Mr. Bryant said.

Asked in an interview Tuesday to sum up the mood in the stationhouse, Mr. Bryant said, “Shock. Shock that our boathouse is gone — unity between the crew. We are a very close crew, everyone gets along.”

Long day

The call over the police scanner of a fully involved fire with visible flames left little doubt that the emergency was real and serious.

Chilmark police chief Brian Cioffi was at the Mid-Island garage with a police cruiser being repaired when he received the call. A bystander gave him a ride to Menemsha. He said his first thought was the need to evacuate the public and facilitate the arrival of emergency vehicles in a town with one road in and out. Police officers were quickly stationed at Beetlebung Corner and the intersection of Tabor House and North Road to redirect traffic away from the scene.

“It was chaotic,” Mr. Cioffi said.

Chilmark police officer Jeff Day was one of the first police on the scene. “I came around the corner, and it was engulfed,” he said.

He called the communications center. They asked about paging Aquinnah firefighters. He told them more than Aquinnah would be needed and asked that the Oak Bluffs fireboat be alerted.

As more fire and police personnel arrived on the scene, the calm voices of the dispatchers who staff the Island communications center provided a steady stream of instructions. One by one Island fire departments were mobilized. All Island EMTs were asked to respond to Menemsha. Volunteers dropped what they were doing and hurried to the scene.

John Rose, chief of the Oak Bluffs ambulance service and assistant fire chief, as well as a plumber when he has any time, had finished a meeting and was going to get something to eat when he heard the first calls. One of the Island’s most experienced emergency responders, he instinctively began heading for the fireboat docked in Oak Bluffs Harbor. “It sounded like they were going to need us,” he said.

Peter Martell, George Fisher, Willy De Bettencourt, John O’Donnell, Josh Forend, and John Gonsalves joined Mr. Rose. They made the trip in 25 minutes. Mr. Rose said he expected the fire might be knocked down by the time they arrived. He was wrong.

“There was a lot of work there for us,” he said. Their first job was putting out the fire around the gas pumps on the dock leading to the fuel lines. Once that was completed they moved to the other side and fought the fire raging on the fill dock. They did not return home until 11 pm. “It was a long day,” Mr. Rose said.

Quick action

Kim Heath of West Tisbury was at Menemsha Beach with her daughter. She was preparing to leave when clouds of black smoke began rising from the vicinity of the Coast Guard dock. “You could hear popping sounds,” she said.

The beach was crowded with people. Many were at first curious but then began to leave Menemsha. She said most people remained calm. As if on cue, babies began to cry, Ms. Heath said. As she walked to her car, parked in the Home Port Restaurant lot, she said she could feel the heat from the intense flames.

The heat was most intense in the inner harbor, downwind from the flaming boathouse. Fishing boats tied up to the Coast Guard dock caught fire. Mooring lines burned through, and the boats began to drift in the swirling harbor current. Many people responded to the emergency.

Brian “Chip” Vanderhoop, Aquinnah harbormaster, was at the Menemsha Texaco when the fire broke out. At first he thought it was a puff of diesel smoke from a boat engine.

He raced to West Basin on the west side of Menemsha Creek and his boat. He began pulling boats out of the slips along the fill dock with the assistance of Aaron Brown and Jeremy Scheffer who boarded his boat. After retrieving three boats, the smoke became too thick for the two men.

Scott Larsen and Gus Leaf arrived and joined Mr. Vanderhoop in his boat. The three men put on Scott air packs that firefighters provided. “The heat was just intense,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.

Commercial lobsterman Wayne Iacono of Chilmark had come into port, tied up his 35-foot Bruno by the boathouse dock and left. On Tuesday morning, he was cleaning soot from his boat. His radar dome was melted, but the boat he depends on for a livelihood was safe, due to the efforts of Mr. Vanderhoop and crew.

“When Chip towed it out, the mooring lines were burning,” he said. “I can’t believe he went and did that. If he didn’t, I would have lost it.”

Mr. Iacono’s 20-foot Privateer was not so fortunate. She burned to the water line. A former Coastguardsman who served at Station Menemsha, Mr. Iacono said the loss of the boathouse was a shame.

Bret Stearns, Wampanoag Tribe natural resources department director, boarded the tribe’s inflatable boat, which is equipped for towing, with Curtis Chandler, Vanessa Lavadinho, and Kendra Newick. They immediately began pulling boats off the dock and out of the harbor and secured the vessels on open moorings or by anchor.

Justin Kingston, a Cape Cod National Seashore police officer, and Paul Campi, a lieutenant with the New Hartford Fire Rescue department in Connecticut, were on vacation. They saw what was happening and ran down to the beach to help Mr. Stearns secure the boats, then jumped on board the inflatable.

Chilmark harbormaster Dennis Jason was pulling a flaming boat out of the harbor and asked for assistance. Mr. Kingston tossed an anchor into the boat in an attempt to secure it and tow it away. It was engulfed in flames and sank, so they tied a buoy to the line to mark it.

Mr. Campi said, “28 years of doing it, it’s hard to stay away.”

Bravery on the water

Civilians with no formal training also pitched in. Bass fisherman Casey Elliston, 24, was building a cutting board when the boathouse went up in flames. Joined by two other fishermen, he quickly began pulling boats away from the flames until the heat drove him off. “I got as many boats out as I could,” Mr. Elliston said. “I’m just glad no one got hurt.”

Those whose boats were saved appreciated the effort. “I think he did a damn right thing,” bass fisherman Lev Wlodyka said of Mr. Elliston. “Everybody else was grabbing their own stuff, and he pulled seven or eight boats out of there.”

Assistant harbormaster Cody Gray of Chilmark grew up in Menemsha. On Monday, he boarded an inflatable boat with harbormaster Jason as the fire raged.

The two picked up the waiting Coast Guard crew and ferried them to the 47-motor lifeboat. They moved trucks to clear a way for the fire crews.

A boat in flames drifted toward the gas dock. With Mr. Jason at the helm and Mr. Gray at the bow, the men inched towards the flaming boat, secured it with a rope, and pulled it away.

“The whole boat was on fire and the only thing that wasn’t on fire was the melting engine,” Mr. Gray said. “I threw it around it. It was about to hit the gas dock, and we got it right away. About 30 seconds later, it sunk into the harbor. It was very close.”

Another boat drifted against the bulkhead. Menemsha Texaco staff, fishermen and lifeguards armed with fire extinguishers attacked the flaming boat.

Mr. Gray, who recently enlisted in the U.S Army, said during the effort to move boats there was no time to untie lines. All the lines were cut. “If the wind had been blowing in the opposite direction all those harbor shacks would have gone up in flames.”

On Tuesday, Katie Carroll, who with her husband Marshall manages Menemsha Texaco, summed up the day. “It was a phenomenal group effort,” she said.