Recovery underway in Havenside fire

Several residents have been displaced since the May fire.


Rebuilding efforts are continuing since the May 28 fire that left nine Havenside Apartments residents displaced. As of now, four of those displaced residents are still living in temporary housing at the Mansion House Inn. 

“When they said the Red Cross would have to get involved, it hit me. I’m a victim,” said resident Ellen O’Brien. “And that word stuck with me.”

O’Brien, who has lived at Havenside for about four and a half years, said everyone was in shock. She said she stayed at the Mansion House Inn for about eight days; she is luckily now back in her residence.

Thanks to free mental health counseling courtesy of the Red Cross, she said she was able to speak to someone who’s helped her a lot. 

“There’s been a lot of cooperation,” said Edward Suares of ServPro, a fire damage restoration company that’s helped in the rebuilding of Havenside. “Everybody has come together and helped each other out.” 

The interior of the right wing of building A suffered the most damage in the incident, with the ceiling and walls destroyed. However, the rest of the building is steadily improving from smoke damage. Displaced residents have come “day to day” to sort through personal items, said Suares.

O’Brien’s neighbors, Frank Polagruto and his wife Celeste, noticed smoke coming out of the building. Polagruto said he was the one that called 911. 

“I had my wife in a wheelchair, so I brought her outside. We stayed there for about 20 to 25 minutes, thinking we were going to go back in,” Polagruto said. 

The accident took place within apartment A-2, said Jerimiah Miller, Havenside’s maintenance manager. New residents were set to move into the space on June 1, which has been delayed due to the fire. 

According to Tisbury Fire Chief Greg Leland, the fire began in the kitchen of apartment A-2. Oak Bluffs Fire Chief Nelson Wirtz said it appeared combustible material had come into contact with the stove, creating the fire. 

Apartment A-2 sits as the right wing of the larger apartment building. The entire Havenside complex is made up of four buildings, A through D, with seven apartments in each building, except Building A, which has eight apartments. The fire didn’t spread to the other seven apartments within building A, according to Chief Leland, although smoke damage did. 

Residents were asked to evacuate after smoke was initially seen coming out of the kitchen door of building A-2. They were told they weren’t going to be able to get back in. It was lucky, Miller said, that help came when it did. 

There was a chance the fire could have spread beyond apartment A-2 and into the rest of the building. “We were, who knows how long, but less than an hour away, from having a real loss here,” Miller said. 

Havenside Apartments is the only nonprofit, affordable housing complex for senior citizens on the Island. According to Miller, any other senior housing complexes are government-funded. The sole source of income for Havenside comes from the tenants.

“These folks that live here that have given their lives to the community, really need the community to help give back to them right now,” said Miller. He said he believes there’s a larger conversation that needs to be had when it comes to Islanders’ struggles with affordable housing as a whole. 

Back in 1977, Margaret Love donated the Havenside property to Grace Episcopal Church. By around 1990, the church had the residence “spun off as a nonprofit,” said Lucinda Kirk, Havenside’s property manager. There are still close ties with the church, she said, as the bishop is required to appoint a board member from each Episocopal Church’s parish on the Island. 

The church has been a help through this rebuilding process, according to Kirk, in providing some food distributions and donations.

According to Miller, residents lost a variety of things, from their personal belongings to clothing, food, and furniture, which isn’t covered by any insurance policies. 

O’Brien said she filled three bags with damaged belongings, her “treasured books” among the pile. “But they were only things,” she said, “just things.” Some residents lost everything.

Besides the lost belongings and relocations, Miller said false fire alarms were an issue as a result of the fire. 

“We had over 2,000 troubled alarms the first night, and 1,000 more the second night,” he said. With the alarm system compromised, someone had to be on the property 24 hours a day until the issue could be resolved. 

The rebuilding process has been “all hands on deck” and has included the generosity of the Vineyard community. Businesses and groups across the Island have worked together donating their time and resources. 

According to Kirk, Airport Laundromat employees worked overtime to successfully salvage some clothing, using special soap pods donated by the Red Cross to eliminate smoke and harmful chemical residue. 

She said that Stephen Bowen, owner of Waterside Market, donated gift cards to residents for meals, and offered free dinners to help them get back on their feet. Chicken Alley Thrift Shop and Act Two Second Hand Store have provided furniture donations. 

The cleanup itself, Suares said, entails vacuuming out spaces, ventilating by opening windows, and wiping down surfaces every day. 

At this point, it may be another two weeks before the remaining displaced residents can return home, said Miller. That would mean they faced about a month of displacement total.

Now, Miller said, he needs help “to secure the foundation moving forward, and for Havenside to remain sound and stable for our elders of our community.”

“We’re a family here,” said Polagruto. “Everybody cares for everybody, and we try to help each other.”