Disposal of cigarettes blamed in fatal Edgartown fire

A fast-moving blaze claimed the life of David Cleary, while three others escaped the fire in a house with no working smoke alarms.

The home at 25 Boylston Drive was a total loss. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Funeral services are scheduled today in Braintree for 32-year-old David M. Cleary, who died in a fire at his Edgartown home March 18. Mr. Cleary was in an upstairs shower when three other people in the home discovered the flames, which began in the three-season porch attached to the 1.5-story wood frame home, police said.

In the home that night with Mr. Cleary were Joshua Crossland, 26, a tenant at the home, and two guests, Benjamin Cotton, 27, of Tisbury, and Matthew McCurdy, 29, also of Tisbury.

“They began to evacuate and called up to David Cleary, who was on the second floor,” according to a news release issued by Edgartown Det. Sgt. Chris Dolby. “They observed David, who had just gotten out of the shower, wrapped in a towel. David initially began to evacuate with them, and then turned back. Once the occupants were outside, they realized David had not come out.”

Mr. Crossland tried to go back into the burning home to save his friend, and was badly burned before the flames turned him back. Det. Sgt. Dolby, who lives nearby, was among the first to respond to the fire. He found a chaotic scene.

“I could hear loud screaming and yelling coming from the front [west] side of the house,” Det. Sgt. Dolby wrote in his report. “As I attempted to make my way around the south side of the house, there was a very loud explosion (later determined to be a grill propane tank), which forced me to turn back. I then went back around to the front side and I observed a small group of people.

“The group yelled to us that there were people trapped in the house. All of them were in various stages of shock, and I could see that a couple of them were in need of medical attention.”

After initial treatment at the scene by paramedics, Mr. Crossland was taken by ambulance to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and later taken by MedFlight to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for treatment of burns, where he remains.

Mr. Cotton was also injured. He was taken by ambulance to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, where he was treated and released.

Even before firefighters could extinguish the fire, they located Mr. Cleary’s body in a first-floor bathroom in the front of the house, fully clothed.

Investigators from the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal’s office arrived on Martha’s Vineyard early the following morning. Along with State Police, Edgartown Police and Edgartown Fire investigators, they determined the cause of the fire.

“The occupants had been smoking cigarettes within the screened-in porch area of the house prior to the fire,” Det. Sgt. Dolby wrote in the news release. “The area was determined to be where the fire originated. Additional evidence lead investigators to conclude that the fire was caused by careless disposal of smoking materials.”

According to the fire marshal, there was no evidence of working smoke alarms in the home.

Devastating loss

Phil Spiro, owner of ITC Distributors, a bread and snack distributorship located at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport business park, employed Mr. Cleary as a sales and delivery driver for the past two and a half years. He became emotional when speaking about their close relationship. “We’re a family business, and he was part of our family. We’re devastated,” Mr. Spiro said.

He said Mr. Cleary was such a valuable employee that the business doubled in size over the past year. On Tuesday, Mr. Spiro had to drive Mr. Cleary’s regular delivery route.

“I had to go door to door, to every customer,” Mr. Spiro said. “I walked in every door, and everybody was so sad. We have a void here now. He was a wonderful, fabulous employee.”

Before joining ITC Distributors, Mr. Cleary worked as a grocery manager at the Island’s Stop and Shop stores.

Mr. Crossland was still being treated at Massachusetts General Hospital on Wednesday afternoon. According to friends who have posted updates on social media, Mr. Crossland is recovering from skin-graft surgery on both hands. He will remain hospitalized for about another week, and then undergo extensive rehabilitation.

He is able to use a stylus attached to his bandaged hands to communicate on an iPad. He posted a message to the many Island residents who have rallied to help him recover.

“I’ve lost all of my possessions, a dear friend, and my ability to work the profession of my choice (at least for a while),” Mr. Crossland wrote. “But I feel extremely fortunate for all the help I’ve received and all the love I’ve felt. Even though day to day living is very very frustrating and hard right now, I know from here it can only get better, so thank you all for your support, I hope to be back home within the next few weeks and hopefully have some kind of normalcy back in my life.”

Tough night

The first 911 call came in at 9:09 pm. The house is located in a subdivision off Metcalf Drive, just to the west of the Vineyard Golf Club.

It was a horrific night to try to fight a fire. The temperature was 26° and plummeting. Winds howled at a steady 30 mph, with gusts up to 38 mph, creating a wind-chill factor of about 8°. The wind direction, from the northwest, could not have been worse. The winds whipped the flames from the rear of the house, where the fire started, toward the front of the structure.

“It was really howling when we got here,” said Edgartown Fire Chief Peter Shemeth.

Firefighters stood in silence shortly after 11 pm as several of their colleagues brought the body of Mr. Cleary out of the home, through an opening cut in the exterior wall.

“It’s tough,” Chief Shemeth said as he stood in the frigid wind last Wednesday night. “No fire is a good fire, but this …”

Grim statistics

The occupants of the home told police they never heard smoke alarms prior to discovering the fire.

“Working smoke alarms are your first line of defense in a fire, when you may have as little as two minutes to escape,” said Deputy State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey in a statement released after the fire. “Fire doubles in size every 60 seconds, so it is important to get out fast.”

According to the fire marshal, there were 1,845 fires in Massachusetts caused by the improper use or disposal of smoking materials in 2013, the last full year for which statistics are available. Those fires caused five civilian deaths, 52 civilian injuries, 39 fire service injuries, and an estimated dollar loss of $17.9 million.