A huge fire erupted in the U.S. Coast Guard boathouse in Menemsha yesterday afternoon, completely destroying the 68-year-old building along with an extended wooden pier that leads to the west dock on the Menemsha harbor. Also destroyed in the blaze were at least one truck and an unknown number of small boats nearby. Miraculously there were no injuries save one minor injury to a volunteer fireman, a Coast Guard public affairs spokesman confirmed last night.
Coast Guard senior officer Ronny German said a preliminary investigation already had begun into the cause of the fire and that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will be asked to investigate because the boathouse is a federal building.
The blaze was first called in at 2:40 p.m. Senior Officer German said a Coast Guardsman was in the boathouse using an exercise room when he smelled smoke and exited the building to call 911. A number of people in Menemsha saw thick black smoke pouring from the windows of the boathouse. The building was fully engulfed in flames by the time the first firemen arrived a few minutes later.
In the middle of the afternoon on a steamy July day, all of Menemsha was evacuated, including the public beach and the Dutcher Dock, as clouds of black smoke billowed into the air and volunteer firemen and EMTs from the six Island towns were called to the scene. The two main arteries leading to Menemsha — the Crossroad and North Road — were shut down. The Menemsha harbor was a chaotic scene as boat owners scrambled to move away from the intensely hot fire and a Coast Guard cutter moved in to try to maintain order on the water. Pumper trucks sucked up water from the harbor and Menemsha channel to pour onto the burning building. The waters around Menemsha were dotted with burning embers, the air full smoke and ash.
Built in 1938 soon after the famous hurricane that wiped out much of the Menemsha fishing village, the boathouse was used by the Coast Guard for storing boat equipment, including some paint. A fuel tank was located nearby and when the fire broke out there was widespread concern about the potential for an explosion. The building is now burned to the ground, along with the extensive wooden pier system around it, Senior Officer German confirmed.
Bill Benns, the captain of the Menemsha bike ferry, said he saw a Coast Guard officer come running out of the building, saying: “This building is going to explode. Get out of the way.”
Nearby resident Tom Langman reported hearing two loud explosions shortly after the fire began.
Police and firemen went door to door along the harbor to evacuate people from shops and restaurants. Busses from the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority were used to evacuate people from the area.
Firemen from all six Island fire departments responded but could do nothing to save the old wooden building. They concentrated instead on preventing the fire from spreading down the wooden wharf and to the many other structures in the thickly-built waterfront area.
One eyewitness said that within 20 minutes of the first signs of smoke the boathouse was destroyed, and the flames were moving down the pier, pushed by a 15-knot southwest wind.
A Coast Guard utility truck parked beside the boathouse was reduced to a blackened shell.
As well as fire trucks from every Island town, two boats — a Coast Guard vessel and the Oak Bluffs fire and rescue boat — battled the blaze on the pier, pumping water onto it from both sides. They were later joined by a second Coast Guard vessel, believed to have come from Woods Hole.
Dozens of boats are moored along the pier in summer. More than one caught on fire. The harbor master’s office, Coast Guard and an inflatable owned by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) raced to tow pleasure craft away from the scene to the other side of Menemsha harbor, and the commercial fishing fleet that ties up on the east side of the harbor was sent out to moor off Lobsterville Beach. Untold numbers of feet of yellow fire hose crisscrossed the narrow roads and paths around the fishing village. A rehabilitation center was set up at the Home Port Restaurant to assist firemen with hydration, oxygen and treatment for smoke inhalation and heat exposure.
Emergency responders imposed a 1,000-foot perimeter around the boathouse.
Firemen using breathing apparatus worked in 10-minute shifts in the intense heat and acrid smoke. All available EMTs were called to the scene.
The boathouse, a huge white building, stood at the landward end of the long wooden pier.
“What a mess,” said Jesse Steere of the Tisbury fire department, who responded to the scene.
There were many accounts of heroics, including the report of Tim and Dan Broderick diving into the harbor to save their father Stephen Broderick’s fishing vessel, the Four Kids.
“There were no injuries that I saw or heard of — lots of EMTs and ambulances on site but none roaring off,” wrote Jane Slater, a Chilmarker who owns an antiques store in Menemsha and writes the Chilmark column for the Vineyard Gazette, in an e-mail to the newspaper yesterday afternoon. “It was a real mess for everyone . . . tents and umbrellas set up on road in front of Galley, engines and special equipment here from all towns and staying . . . lots of very serious firefighters and lots of police, state and town.”
By about 5 p.m. the fire was subsiding and firefighters had shifted into the arduous work of continuing to soak the area with water, looking for hot spots and securing the scene. The work was expected to continue into the night; Senior Officer German said Chilmark fire chief David Norton would decide when the fire was officially out.
An emergency meeting of the Chilmark selectmen was held at the scene of the fire at 5 p.m. yesterday to survey the damage to the town-owned road built on top of the wooden pier that connects to the fuel dock destroyed by the fire.
The wooden road that leads to the fuel dock was completely destroyed, and selectmen agreed to hire an engineer to visit the site first thing Tuesday morning to look at the damage and come up with a plan for repairs. “We decided we shouldn’t wait to make these repairs. We want to jump right in and get this done, we need this fixed by the end of the summer,” said selectman Frank Fenner after the meeting.
“It’s such a tragedy, just terrible really. This hurts the whole town. But we will recover,” Mr. Fenner said.
Senior Officer German said interim coverage for station Menemsha will be provided by Coast Guard stations Woods Hole, Point Judith, Brandt Point and Castle Hill Point. In addition the Coast Guard cutter Sanibel is on the scene at the Menemsha. “What we care about is that the people are safe — we can worry about the property later,” he said.
In her e-mail Mrs. Slater took special note of the community spirit that prevailed at a time of chaos. “I was impressed to see Bob Nixon on the Home Port roof watching the flames . . . and Kevin Oliver right in the midst of it giving out free water to the really hot firemen. No panic, everyone seems grim and regretful. Most awful sight was a burning boat floating in the basin, quickly caught and dealt with . . . another awful sight was to see a couple of small boats burning — they were either at the Coast Guard dock or nearby.
“Anyway, that’s it from here and we are fine . . . ready to help rebuild.”
Gazette reporters Jim Hickey, Mike Seccombe and Mark Alan Lovewell contributed to this report.