Brian (Chip) Vanderhoop, 49, saved the livelihoods of a lot of fishermen as the U.S. Coast Guard boathouse burned. The Aquinnah harbor master and shellfish constable would prefer little notice; it is just out of character for him to talk much about himself or to pose for a photograph. Of his five Vanderhoop siblings, he is the quiet one.
Yet on the afternoon of Monday, July 12, Mr. Vanderhoop was drawn to the forefront through his desire to help. Using his boat-handling expertise, his concern for the wellbeing of others and a daring strength, he drove his boat through the heat and black smoke of an enormous fire into unknown danger. Mr. Vanderhoop is credited with leading an effort to save as many as a dozen boats belonging to others.
Chilmark lobster fisherman Emmett Carroll is certain Mr. Vanderhoop saved his boat Kathie C; Mr. Vanderhoop saved Mike Syslo’s boat Roccus and Everett H. Poole’s lobster boat Jini F. There were others too numerous to name. “I don’t remember all of them,” Mr. Vanderhoop said, adding that he got a lot of help from others.
For less than an hour, Mr. Vanderhoop motored around the West Dock, the floating dock, right up to boats in the peril of burning. With others in his boat, they cut lines.
The intent was to get these boats away from the firestorm growing on the dock. Had any of the boats been left unattended they certainly would have caught fire and burned to the waterline. Some boats did.
On the afternoon of the fire, Mr. Vanderhoop was parked two parking spaces west from the Menemsha Texaco in his red pickup truck. His three-year-old Icelandic sheepdog, Izzie, sat next to him. “I was waiting to get a spool of line from Everett,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.
He looked up and saw a puff of smoke right behind one of the commercial fishing boats. He turned his head down. “I didn’t think anything of it. It looked like a puff of smoke from a diesel stack, coming off a commercial boat.”
A moment later he looked back up and saw a huge column of smoke rising.
“I ran down to the Menemsha Fish Market by the charter dock to see,” he said. “The whole southeast end of the boathouse was in flames. The flames were going up the side of the building. It was scary.”
Mr. Vanderhoop then took his truck and sped around to West Basin, where he could get on his 21-foot Carolina skiff with a 75 horsepower Yamaha outboard.
“I took my brother [Buddy] so he could get to his boat,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. By then the whole boathouse was aflame. It was already clear that the heat of the fire and the flames were going to head down the drive-on road and burn every boat along the way. Mr. Vanderhoop recalled getting three boats away from the dock. One of the lines on a boat was already burning. Mr. Vanderhoop was joined by Jeremy Scheffer and Aaron Brown. There were others.
Chilmark harbor master Dennis Jason did the same in a different boat.
Later Mr. Vanderhoop was joined by volunteers wearing Scott Air Packs. He was helped by Scott Larsen and Gus Leaf. While the black, thick smoke hung over parts of the harbor and over Mr. Vanderhoop’s head, he watched as at least two burning boats drifted towards Menemsha Texaco. “If one of those boats had made it to the gas dock?”
As the fire grew and the urgency rose, Mr. Vanderhoop said he was confused when he saw EMTs on the dock next to the fish markets waving at him to stop. “I was baffled.”
“I’d get back out, and then they’d start yelling at me. I guess it was their job,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.
“There were boats with their transoms being cooked. I went back to get more,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “I had to get back before something else blew up.
“I know these people. I would hope that if my boat was in trouble, somebody might look out for my boat,” he said. “It is bad enough being a fisherman, with all the quotas and regulations. It is tough. I know none of them could imagine seeing their boat going up in flames.”
He was busy, too busy to do anything else. Mr. Vanderhoop said he turned to the EMTs and said: “I’ll be right there.”
When he finished, Mr. Vanderhoop was urged by the EMTs and others to go to the medical center set up in front of the Galley. “They said to me: ‘You have high blood pressure.’ I said, ‘Of course!’ You get pumped up with something like this. Had my blood pressure been low, I would have wondered what was wrong.”
He credits many other people involved. “The community response to the fire was amazing. We couldn’t have done better if we had held a fake drill. The Oak Bluffs fire boat came. Everyone worked hard,” he said.
Mr. Vanderhoop has worked as harbor master and shellfish constable since 1995. “This is the top, except for a search and rescue,” he said, citing the only one other event in his career that comes close to being as memorable as what happened in Menemsha on Monday, July 12.
Early in the summer of 1997, the community and the Coast Guard came out to search for Dyami Piccus, a 15-year-old boy who ventured out into the waters of Vineyard Sound alone and drowned in a boating accident. That was a huge loss for the community and to Mr. Vanderhoop personally. Despite the intense search, the outcome was tragic. The young boy had served often as Mr. Vanderhoop’s mate.
“I love my job. At times you can get into the worst situations,” he said.