Tisbury assistant fire chief Tom Colligan was showering in an outdoor shower on Friday morning at his home in Edgartown when his pager went off.
Prior to that moment, he had plans to spend the day with his cousins and relatives.
Less than a half hour later, he was inside the basement of Cafe Moxie in Vineyard Haven with little or no vision, feeling his way through orange-tinted black smoke.
He was fighting a fire to save a building, but also aware that he and his colleagues were at risk.
They are volunteers. They wear 65 pounds of heavy gear on a hot summer day and walk into a fire. They risk their lives and still come out of it smiling and with a positive attitude about what they do.
More than a third of the members of the Tisbury fire department have a relative or had a relative on the department. Mr. Colligan’s father Ed Colligan, still active in the community, was a star fireman.
On Friday morning, July 4, the assistant chief, an electrician by trade, thought that he had the day off.
“I had my relatives at the house,” Mr. Colligan said. “I had family coming over for a cookout in the afternoon, before the parade. I told my cousin Cindy: ‘This is the only day I don’t have to get up and do anything.’
“We were watching the birds. ‘I will have another cup of coffee,’ I told her. ‘I better take a shower and get ready to meet the day.’”
Minutes later, as soon as he was on Main street, he and three other men descended the stairs into the basement of Cafe Moxie with a fully charged hose ready to beat the fire back. His mission was to attack on the fire at the source. There was already a hand line into the front of the building, but smoke was pouring out of the basement.
The access to the basement was on Centre street. The street was covered with smoke.
Mr. Colligan, who has been on the fire department for 36 years, went down into the basement, followed by three of his men: Joe Tierney, Darren Welch and Mike Dube.
“There was a tremendous amount of heat,” Mr. Colligan said. “When we got down there all we could see was through the thick black smoke was orange. You can’t see your hand. The whole basement was on fire. We were trying to put it out with the hose line we had.”
The assistant chief said he thought the heat inside was more than 1,000 degrees, but couldn’t be certain.
“Glass melts and then drips down the walls. Light bulbs and everything drips. There is always dripping glass in there. Light bulbs are weird when they melt out of the ceiling. Paint on the walls bubbles.”
While he was down in the basement, he was in radio contact with command. A rescue crew was ready to be dispatched if he had any trouble.
“I remember the call,” Mr. Colligan said. “The fire had extended into the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore second floor. I looked at Joe and said: ‘We got to get out of here.’ Because it will take them weeks to find us. That would have been a killer. What are we going to do in the basement of this one? So we are out of here.”
The assistant chief said he heard the fire trucks fire off their air horns, the signal to get out of the building.
Mr. Colligan said they came out of the basement and shifted the attack to putting out the fire in the Bunch of Grapes.
Going into the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Mr. Colligan said they encountered ceiling tiles that had already fallen into the first floor.
“It was a spider web in there,” he said. “There were hanging wires and cables that had been above hanging down on us. There was fire crackling.”
John Rose of Oak Bluffs is captain of Engine Four. He has been on the Oak Bluffs fire department for 19 years and he is active in emergency medical services, also known as EMS.
Mr. Rose, who had plans to spend the day with his wife Jennifer and two grown kids, Megan, 19, and Amanda, 15, also was in the shower when his pager went off shortly after 9 a.m.
He had already worked late every night and day through the week on emergency medical services and had very little sleep.
“I have a plumbing business. When I have to get up to go plumbing, I have to drag myself out of bed,” he said. “When I got to do EMS, I am up early, cleaned up and showered and out the door. I love it.”
When his pager went off he ran out the door of his house, went to the Oak Bluffs fire station and jumped on 93, the response truck. He joined four or five other firefighters.
“As soon as we got there, we went right into Bunch of Grapes to try and knock down the fire that was extending into the second floor,” Mr. Rose said.
Joining him on the hose was Bobby Williston and Chris Wiggins, two Oak Bluffs firemen Mr. Rose has known for a long time.
“Bobby Williston has been my first lieutenant on Engine Four since I been on the truck. I have known Bobby all my life,” he said. “I’ve known Chris ever since he joined the department eight or nine years ago.
“I was on the nozzle,” Mr. Rose said. Mr. Rose had radio communication to the outside and spoke often with Bruce O’Donnell, assistant fire chief for Oak Bluffs.
When they entered the bookstore, Mr. Rose said they couldn’t see beyond their hand, the black smoke was so thick.
“There was smoke all the way down to the floor when we walked in,” he said. “We could see the bookshelves and things were falling down on us. There were ceiling tiles falling.
“We could hear the fire burning over our heads. We could hear the crackle. You’d knock it down and then it would flash. Then you could see what was going on.
“We shot the water at the fire. Then it steams. The water has so much energy it moves the smoke away so you can see. Then you get a good visual.”
The captain said once they shot the water from the nozzle, the air cleared enough smoke away so they could actually see daylight coming in through the wall.
It took the small team of three men 15 minutes to work from the front of the building to the stairway, the landing that goes upstairs.
“Our mission was to knock it down and get to the second floor and look for fire extension,” Mr. Rose said. “But by the time we got to the second-floor platform there was just too much smoke.
“Assistant fire chief Colligan told us to come back downstairs from the platform. He was worried about the second floor being burned through. He didn’t want to see us falling through. So we had to pull back out.”
Mr. Rose said that they made three or four trips into the bookstore. Going into a burning building is scary, he said.
“You read articles all the time about buildings like this, old buildings where firefighters lose their lives. When you are inside we communicate using hand signals. You never let go of your partner.” Mr. Rose said that the team effort with the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown fire departments was seamless.
“I went into that building with Kara Shemeth of Edgartown. I went into the building with Tisbury firemen, with Edgartown firemen. We all worked together.
“If we ever have a big fire in Oak Bluffs or Edgartown, no one department is going to fight it alone. You need to work as a team,” Mr. Rose said.