Investigators unable to pinpoint cause of Menemsha fire

Chuck Stevens/ Phil Cox

The roaring July 12, 2010 fire that destroyed the Coast Guard Station Menemsha boathouse, docks and boats, and very nearly spread to the surrounding village, did not start inside the boathouse.

It may have been the result of a discarded cigarette on the pier, faulty electrical wiring to the boathouse, or faulty electrical wiring to the town’s pier. An investigation begun by federal, state, and local authorities right after the fire was extinguished found insufficient evidence to determine a more precise ignition source.

That is the conclusion of a report Coast Guard officials presented at a briefing Wednesday afternoon for Captain Verne Gifford, Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England commander, attended by local and state officials but closed to the media.

“They did definitively state that the fire did not start in the boathouse,” Captain Gifford told The Times following yesterday’s briefing.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal, and the Coast Guard Investigative Service, with assistance from the Chilmark Police and Chilmark Fire Departments, conducted the probe.

Captain Gifford requested the investigation to examine the site for evidence of criminal activity and to identify the point of origin of the fire. The team conducted more than 70 interviews, performed forensic analysis of wiring samples and burn patterns, and reviewed weather data.

The Coast Guard made an electronic version of the report available to The Times, following a seven-month investigation.

The three Chilmark selectmen, Chilmark harbormaster, town administrator and lobsterman Wayne Iacono joined investigators and Coast Guard officials for the official presentation of the report at 1:30 pm, in the second floor meeting room in Station Menemsha, atop a hill with a commanding view of the harbor.

Finally, the report, but what’s next?

“We finally got the report,” selectman Warren Doty, the chairman, said as he left the stuffy room following an approximately one-hour meeting. “It seems like it took an inordinately long time.”

Mr. Doty added, “The conclusion is that the fire is of undetermined origin. Why couldn’t they have said that in September?”

Mr. Doty said the conclusion of the investigation would allow the town to move forward to file claims with the Coast Guard legal department. Asked if the Coast Guard would be liable for any claims as a result of the findings, Mr. Doty said, “That’s unknown.”

Mr. Doty said there was some discussion about the construction of a new boathouse. “I think the rebuilding program is headed in the right direction,” he said.

Selectmen Frank Fenner said one concern is that the boathouse be rebuilt in keeping with the original design. It is the largest structure in our harbor. and everyone is concerned that something be put back that fits in with the surroundings,” Mr. Fenner told The Times following yesterday’s meeting. “And it should be easy enough to do. The right thing to do is to have local people be able to voice an opinion.We got reassurance today that something of that nature would happen.”

The immediate Coast Guard plan is to construct a temporary floating dock and pier by May 20, out from the lot where the boathouse once stood, in order to moor its two workhorse rescue boats this summer.

Captain Gifford told The Times there is a $10 million line item in the president’s budget for the rebuilding of the Menemsha boathouse. “That hasn’t been approved yet, but it is in the presidential budget,” he said.

If it is approved, Captain Gifford said the best case is the boathouse would be completed in late 2013. The outside date would be mid-2014, he said.

Captain Gifford said the design process is expected to take six to 12 months and actual construction 12 to 18 months. “And that all starts once it’s approved in the budget,” he said.

Answer, no answer

The cause of the fire has been the subject of much speculation. At first, the suspicion was that it began in the boathouse.

Four days after the fire, on July 16, Christopher Adams from the Hyannis office of then Congressman Bill Delahunt organized a meeting of local, state and federal officials in Menemsha.

At that meeting Captain Gifford urged people not to assume that the fire began in the boathouse.

“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,” he said.

Captain Gifford told those present that although the boathouse fire was a federal investigation, agencies at all levels would participate in the investigation. He said the process would be built on consensus, and any judgment on cause would 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 would be thorough and independent.

Identifying the source and cause of the fire had financial implications for the town and those who lost property in the blaze. One question was whether the Coast Guard would be liable.

Chilmark closed Menemsha Harbor to all boaters for a short time after the July 12 fire. The fire destroyed or damaged some of the dock space on the western side of the harbor. Even when the harbor was open to visiting boaters again, many charted courses away from Menemsha, to avoid the uncertainty.

Harbor revenue was down $181,585, or 12.2 percent for 2010, from $206,835 the year before, according to town officials.

Revenue for the month of July was off 23 percent, and for August, 37.5 percent.

No word on rebuild

At a meeting in September, Coast Guard officials told Chilmark selectmen that construction of a new Station Menemsha boathouse is not likely to begin until the summer of 2012.

In a briefing to Chilmark selectmen, Commander Will Smith of Civil Engineering Unit Providence explained the delay. He said funds for reconstruction of the historic building must come from a special pool of money allocated by Congress.

“The fiscal year 2011 budget is already finalized,” Mr. Smith said in September. “That train has left the station.”

At the time, Mr. Smith said the earliest construction might was July or August of 2012, a date now moved back.

The original Coast Guard station was Station Gay Head, located next to the lighthouse on the cliffs. The hurricane of 1938 wiped out the Gay Head boathouse on Lobsterville Beach. It was rebuilt in Menemsha in 1939 with what would become its trademark red roof.

In 1952, the Coast Guard moved the Cuttyhunk station building to Menemsha by barge. Commissioning of the new station took place on March 12, 1954. In January, 1974, the Coast Guard officially changed the name of the station to reflect its actual location.

Station Menemsha includes approximately 22 Coast Guard men and women. Patrolling in a 47-foot motor life boat and rigid hull inflatable, the station is responsible for an area that includes the waters south and west of Gay Head off the western end of Vineyard Sound.

Like a war zone

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

The fire broke out in the small commercial fishing port on a stifling 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 fireboat 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 a 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.

At one point in the battle, a boat in flames drifted toward the gas dock. Harbormaster Dennis Jason piloted his boat, with assistant harbormaster Cody Gray as crew, and the two men inched toward 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. Mr. Gray lassoed the burning craft as it was about to hit the gas dock and he and Mr. Jason towed it away. About 30 seconds later, it sank. It was very close.”

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

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