First published on the Gazette Web site Friday morning.
The wheels on his bike stopped abruptly on Centre street behind Cafe Moxie when the pantry chef saw flames breaking through the roof of the restaurant around 9:40 a.m. on 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 cafe, 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 cafe’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 from holes in the cafe’s roof. “I live three doors down.”
Cafe 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 endeavor they had begun this May, when they started to run the cafe 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. Those newspapers were still being delivered to vendors, some still coming off the presses in Edgartown, when Mr. Racine arrived at the cafe early, as usual.
He said he had been in the basement of Cafe 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 Cafe Moxie exactly 10 years ago after buying what had been the Dry Town Cafe, 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 despairing as the flames kept returning. Cell phones were held up throughout the crowd, taking pictures.
More firefighters arrived, one kicking off his 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 toward the flames as other men emerged for a break, wrapping towels over their heads, swapping oxygen tanks.
The roof of Cafe 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 Cafe 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 storey 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’ve got to worry about the next building,” she said, gesturing toward Alley Cat. “The fire was just so fierce,” she said.
What remained of Cafe 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 front of Cafe 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.
Cafe Moxie’s blue and white striped awning now 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 cafe and appeared to devastate the bookstore, seemed not to have touched the glass box which would hold Cafe Moxie’s menu for the Fourth of July lunch and dinner rush.