The wheels on his bike stopped abruptly on Centre street behind Café Moxie when the pantry chef saw the flames breaking through the roof of the restaurant around 9:40 a.m. today, the Fourth of July. “I guess I don’t have work today,” he said sadly, and rode off.
Tisbury, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown firefighters were there with several engines and a hose aimed at the propane tanks behind the café, from the middle of Centre street near Main, sending up clouds of smoke that already were spreading acrid odors as far as the Tisbury School; the fire had begun shortly after nine and spread fast and fiercely according to witnesses at the scene.
By the time the pantry chef was due to clock in, water was streaming down the Main street café’s eaves, but the flames continued to erupt. The cream-colored paint of the triangular facade was turning brown, then black from the edges, as the fire damage crept in, overtaking the single-story building whose age is unknown.
“They better get some more water on that,” cried one man, anxiously, as smoke and flames shot form holes in the café’s roof. “I live three doors down.”
Café Moxie’s new owners Austin Racine and Katrina Yekel stood behind the yellow crime scene tape, holding each other. She held her hands over her face, her wet and reddened eyes looking back intermittently, seemingly searching the scene for answers. By now black smoke was pouring also from the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore next door and more firefighters were donning masks.
“So much for that dream,” Mr. Racine said quietly as the couple tried to take in what was happening to the endeavour they had begun this May, when they started to run the café where they had met, and worked, before taking ownership of the business.
The Gazette has been following the progress of the young owners in a series of articles; the second was published this morning, describing their preparations for the summer season, where they were ready to work 63 days straight serving lunch and dinner. The newspapers were still being delivered to vendors, some still coming off the presses in Edgartown, when Mr. Racine arrived at the café early, as usual.
He said he had been in the basement of Café Moxie all morning and had noticed nothing amiss. He was in the kitchen when he realized there was a fire in the basement.
Steve Gallagher, who with his wife Tina Miller had named it Café Moxie exactly 10 years ago after buying what had been the Dry Town Café, was among the hundreds of incredulous onlookers behind the tape.
“This is it,” he said of the devastating timing of the fire. “You’ve got six weeks to make your money here. That’s it.”
Like many others behind the tape, he kept shaking his head. Even kids carrying their skateboards, their rash shirts and board shorts still dripping, looked devastated as the flames kept returning. Cell phones were held up throughout the crowd, taking pictures.
More firefighters arrived, one kicking off Crocs around 10:15 a.m. and pulling up the suspenders of the thick padded pants he grabbed from Fire Engine 3 Legion Pumper parked in front of Mardell’s, where shopkeepers were taking the plastic tubs of knockoff Crocs inside from the sidewalk. The newly arrived firefighter stepped into white rubber boots and stepped toward the flames as others emerged for a break, wrapping towels over their heads, swapping oxygen tanks.
The roof of Café Moxie was folding in, losing shape in the middle. Water seemed to shoot from the hose in an arc above the sinking shingles. The clock outside the Bunch of Grapes never struck 10 o’clock.
Observer Nancy Neill said she had looked into Café Moxie at 9 a.m. and noted how lovely the new curtains were. There was no sign of smoke then, she said. “It was just fine,” she said.
Now, just over an hour later, she looked stunned as the second-story walls of the Bunch of Grapes seemed to be peeling away, black. Firefighters worked from a cherry-picker that hovered over the banner advertising the Tisbury Street Fair, set for Tuesday, July 8.
Tina Miller said: “Imagine if this had happened at four in the morning. The whole street would be gone. Or if there was more wind, like yesterday. You gotta worry about the next building,” she said, gesturing toward Alley Cat. “The fire was just so fierce,” she said.
What remained of Café Moxie’s blackened roof was now collapsed onto the floor, where the two-top and four-top tables had been set up less than two hours before.
Tisbury selectman Denys Wortman called it truly an awful fire for a small downtown full of wooden buildings.
Tisbury police chief John Cashin carried away a rolled-up American flag that had hung in from to the charred Café Moxie and Bunch of Grapes, its stars now wrapped tightly in the red and white stripes that had flown to signal the start of the Vineyard’s best-loved social season and critical economic season.
Café Moxie’s blue and white striped awning hung, broken in two, where the picture-book windows had been last night. Its swinging door frame was still blue on the bottom, but burned black around the top. The yellow benches on the sidewalk on either side of the door looked oddly untouched.
And somehow, cruelly, the flames that took out the entire café and appeared to devastate the bookstore, appeared not to have touched the glass box which would hold Café Moxie’s menu for the Fourth of July lunch and dinner rush.