Coast Guard balks at $1.3 million Menemsha fire claim

The red-roofed Menemsha Coast Guard boathouse was destroyed in a July 2010 fire that threatened the entire Menemsha waterfront. — File photo by Chuck Stevens/ Phil Cox

The U.S. Coast Guard has denied the town of Chilmark’s property insurance claim stemming from the July 2010 fire in Menemsha on the grounds that the fire did not start in the Coast Guard boathouse but instead on the town-owned drive-on pier.

Town administrator Tim Carroll received the letter denying the town’s claim seeking $1.3 million in damages in a letter dated March 8 from the Susan A. Steiner, an attorney for the U.S. Coast Guard Legal Service Command.

“The information indicates that the fire began on the drive-on pier, quickly spreading to a nearby structure, access piers and moored boats. The investigation into the incident could not determine the cause of the fire that damaged your property,” Ms. Steiner wrote, concluding:

“Hence, because the claimed damages were not caused by the U.S. Coast Guard’s negligence, your claim is not payable.”

The letter says the town has the right to appeal the ruling in U.S. District Court within six months or to file a written request with the Coast Guard asking for reconsideration of the decision, including factual grounds supporting a request for relief.

Frustrated town selectmen, at their regular meeting on Tuesday, March 20, reacted angrily to Ms. Steiner’s letter, not only because she denied the town’s claim, but also because it suggested the fire started on the town pier, which they said was patently untrue.

“This sentence in the second paragraph indicates the fire started on the drive-on pier…that is a complete misstatement,” selectman chairman Frank Fenner said.

False statements

Mr. Fenner said he reviewed the report detailing the fire investigation, compiled through a joint effort of the Coast Guard, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Massachusetts Fire Marshal and local authorities, and found information that led him to conclude that Ms. Steiner’s description was not accurate.

The 22-page report was completed December 30, 2010, but was not presented to the town until February 22, 2011. The report said the fire 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.

The report found insufficient evidence to determine a more precise ignition source, but definitively rejected a conclusion that the fire started in the Coast Guard boathouse.

Mr. Fenner was one of the people interviewed for the report. Even though the names of people interviewed were redacted, he was able to pinpoint his own statements because he was identified as the owner of the Galley Restaurant.

The report states that Mr. Fenner told interviewers he was working one of the take-out windows at the Galley the day of the fire when he heard someone say the boathouse was on fire. He then ran outside and saw black smoke and the Coast Guard boathouse covered in flames.

He later spotted harbormaster Dennis Jason and jumped aboard his boat and traveled up the channel to help. The report states that Mr. Fenner witnessed a lot of smoke under the boathouse and dock.

Later in the report, a person whose name is blacked out, who reportedly hopped in the harbormaster’s boat with Mr. Jason, told interviewers the “flames on the dock started at the front (south door) of the USCG Boathouse and ran along the dock.”

“[Name redacted] continued explaining that none of the flames were on the USCG Boathouse at this time,” the report stated.

It is unclear whose statement the report is referencing in this section, although Mr. Fenner on Tuesday said the statements he made to investigators were not accurately reflected in the report.

“That is not accurate to what I said. I specifically told the interviewers that when I was coming down the channel with my boat I was specifically looking to see if Wayne [Iacono’s] boat was all right, and looking to see where the fire was,” he said. “The fire was definitely in the building …”

Mr. Fenner also questioned the finding that the level of charring on the drive-on pier indicated that the fire started there.

“The drive-on pier, if I remember correctly, we used that to walk to get down to the dock, really past the Coast Guard station, for the next three or four months, and during part of the construction. So the integrity of that pier was just fine. I mean, it’s totally infuriating,” he said.

“I was right there and I saw where the flames were, the flames were on the Coast Guard section. There were no flames that I saw on the drive-on dock and for them to infer that makes me boil,” he added.

Mr. Fenner questioned if the report contained additional wrong information. “I really question now all of these other interviews. I mean did anybody else see a copy of their interview and sign it?” he said.

‘We Completely Reject Your Characterization’

The other two selectmen were similarly upset with the suggestion that the fire started on the drive-on pier and not in the Coast Guard boathouse. The board unanimously voted to write to the Coast Guard, via Ms. Steiner’s office, expressing disappointment with the decision.

“While we find the action disappointing and reserve our right to appeal this decision, we completely reject your characterization of the fire. The extensive joint investigation…did not establish the fire started on the drive-on pier,” the letter states.

“Such a representation by the Legal Service Command is misleading and contrary to eye-witness reports. Furthermore for Legal Service Command to state unequivocally that the damages were ‘not caused by the U.S. Coast Guard’s negligence,’ is unsupported by the investigation.”

The selectmen’s letter points out that the joint investigation report concluded there were several potential causes of the fire, including faulty wiring leading to the boathouse, and formally requested that Legal Service Command retract their assertion the fire started on the drive-on pier.

Selectman Jonathon Mayhew asked that the letter also be sent to U.S. Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown. The letter will also be sent to Representative William Keating and Capt. Verne B. Gifford of the U.S. Coast Guard Southeast New England sector.

Old wounds

The receipt of the letter seemed to reopen old wounds for selectmen who are frustrated not only with the Coast Guard’s refusal to pay their claim, but also with the plans for a new and larger boathouse to replace the old one.

Coast Guard officials first presented plans for the new boathouse at a public hearing on October 25, 2011. Those draft plans called for a boathouse with two floors, 34 feet, 11 inches at its highest point and 78 feet long.

By comparison, the old boathouse was 28 feet high and 63 feet long. In response to the concerns of town officials over height, length, and design elements that included the style of windows and dormers, the Coast Guard modified the design.

In a conference call with selectmen on December 6, Coast Guard officials described revised plans that showed a boathouse 6 feet, 6 inches longer and two feet, 11 inches taller, and one foot narrower than the original boathouse, which was built in 1939.

Those revised plans did not satisfy selectmen, who said the new structure was still too large and did not comply with town zoning bylaws that set a maximum building height of 24 feet and 18 feet in the coastal zone.

Coast Guard officials, however, have indicated that they will not make any more changes to the plans, and have adopted a construction schedule calling for the contract to be awarded in August and construction to be completed by November of 2013.