The Tisbury Inn was destroyed Saturday night by a fire that started in mid-evening and wasn't fully extinguished until late afternoon Sunday. More than 100 firefighters and public safety personnel were called to the center of the town to fight the blaze at the landmark hotel.
"The most important thing is that no one was hurt," said Susan Goldstein, who with her husband, Sherman, has owned the 33-room inn since 1985. Zephrus, the restaurant next door, and the health club building that houses the Island's only public indoor swimming pool were partially damaged, but the main inn which services both of them was gutted by the fire. Tisbury fire chief Richard Clark said of the inn: "It is a total loss. What is left standing is structurally damaged. It is up to the architects and the engineers to decide what can be saved."
This was the largest structural fire that Chief Clark has encountered in his 45 years as a fireman. The Tisbury Inn is the second-largest building in town, smaller only than the town's elementary school.
The fire was called into the communication center at 9:45 p.m. Saturday, moments after inn employees started detecting smoke in the attic and saw flames break out in the main health exercise room behind the lobby. Chief Clark said he called for mutual aid from Oak Bluffs and Edgartown as soon as he reached the scene.
With the assistance of an inspector from the state fire marshall's office, the fire chief and others were able to trace the fire to an oil-fired hot water heater in the basement. A smoke pipe going into the chimney came loose. The chief said the fire may have been burning for some time.
Until minutes before the discovery of the blaze, employees told the Gazette that business within the inn and restaurant was normal. Some employees spoke of an unaccounted odor, but Mrs. Goldstein said the building always has odors from the restaurant and the health club. One advance whiff of smoke was attributed to a fire in the fireplace.
Buddy Raymond, manager of the inn since 1985, went up to the attic with a member of the staff at the first report of smoke. It was thick; he came down and heard someone from downstairs shout: "Fire!"
Fire was first seen in the health club room behind the lobby, employees said. Mr. Raymond said he grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it to work. Alan Peterson, who has an apartment in the basement and works at the inn as a handyman, also helped.
Other employees went through the inn, banging on room doors to alert the occupants to leave.
The smoke, heat and flames forced the two men to abandon their efforts quickly. "We stopped when the ceiling fell down on us," said Mr. Peterson.
"You just wanted to get out of there," said Mr. Raymond.
Mr. Goldstein received a phone call from Mr. Raymond at his home in West Tisbury.
"Josh [his son, home for the holidays from college] and I were watching television when the call came in," Mr. Goldstein said.
It is usually an eight-minute drive. Mr. Goldstein said by the time he reached the inn, firemen were entering the building. "I remember, fireman Jeff Pratt said: ‘I think you should step aside and let us do our work.' I said: ‘Jeff, you're on.' "
While leaving the inn, Mr. Raymond grabbed the register with its list of all the people occupying the 17 rooms of the inn.
The inn staff, with the help of other Island innkeepers and the American Red Cross, provided housing for all of the inn's guests, who numbered fewer than 50 people. Mrs. Goldstein said the Harbor View, Harbor Landing, Martha's Place and the Lambert's Cove Inn put up guests.
Oak Bluffs firemen set up their base of operations on Beach street, across from the Tisbury fire station, and began pumping water from Beach street extension. Smoke was first billowing out from atop the Tisbury Inn. The smoke then began appearing from under the eaves of the building next to and overlooking the health club. Oak Bluffs firemen scaled ladders and fought the fire with hoses on the pool roof. Waves of smoke often hid the small group from view. Visibility down Beach street dropped to a few feet through much of the night.
The Tisbury fire station, downwind from the blaze, couldn't be used to fill the Scott air packs carried by the men into the burning building. Chief Clark said he was concerned the air tanks might be contaminated by the smoke. Edgartown's ladder truck showed up near the Martha's Vineyard Cooperative Bank and began filling the tanks instead with its compressor.
Chief Clark said three attempts were made to enter while the inn was ablaze. But high volumes of smoke, fire and the danger of floors collapsing sent the firemen out each time.
Shortly before 11 p.m., all the fire trucks sounded their horns in a signal to all fire personnel in the building to leave. Chief Clark said firemen regularly train with their air tanks and masks to enter buildings and fight fires, but the interior of the inn was just too dangerous.
From the outside, the inn looked like a burning oven. All the fire was held within by asbestos shingles, but smoke seeped from many crevices around the building's eaves and roof. The heat of the fire was mostly contained inside. Occasionally bright flames could be seen inside a window.
Chief Clark said the sprinkler system in the building was doing a good job at fighting the fire, but not enough. Flames circulated throughout. Chief Clark said there were areas where the third floor collapsed onto the second floor and a few places where the second floor was falling onto the first. Because the building was old, the chief said it was particularly difficult to fight the fire. Buildings of that age were built with what is called "balloon construction." That means that there is a full opening of air in the walls from the first floor to the second and third floor. A fire within the walls has free access throughout the building. Today's new buildings have fire stops at each floor. Even though the sprinkler system, recently checked, was working effectively, water was not reaching behind the walls where the worst of the fire was burning. Firemen on Main street watched as the asbestos shingles on the second and third floor began to peel from the walls.
After midnight, the flames began appearing from under the eaves on the Beach street side. The chief said his firemen were trying to keep the fire within the building. Had the wind been blowing a different direction, the fire may have posed an even greater danger to the neighborhood.
Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein, with their son, stood inside the EduComp store and watched the inn burn. "I have to thank the firemen," said Mr. Goldstein. He said he was amazed at how effective the firemen were in both fighting the fire and also being supportive toward his family. "This is a volunteer force - to have the time, the presence of mind to do what they do. And they would come up to me and give me a hug. When I couldn't take watching the building any more, I took refuge in EduComp," Mr. Goldstein said.
The Tisbury ladder truck began dumping water wherever openings appeared in the building. The Oak Bluffs ladder truck also sent a stream of water separating the pool building from the main building.
By daylight, firemen were still pouring water on the fire. A tree next to the Vietnam Memorial monument was shrouded in ice. Traffic resumed on Main street and cars eased by as firemen went in and out of the building. Pedestrians stopped along the sidewalks and watched as smoke continued to rise through the remnants of the attic.
The full significance of the fire was apparent Wednesday afternoon when firemen wearing rubber gloves and carrying lists of items to look for volunteered to go inside and search the rooms for personal belongings. Scorched electrical wires hung across rooms and hallways. Blackened debris covered what was once lush carpeting. Plaster walls showed cracks, indicating that the building was not only unsafe but was settling. Firemen had to avoid places on the floor where it was clear there would be no support. In one bathroom on the second floor were two toilets, one of which had fallen from the floor above.
Mr. Peterson lost everything in his basement apartment. He said there are many parts to the story that in a way are a blessing. He said the fast-moving fire could have brought a greater loss if it had started in the wee morning hours.