The view over Menemsha harbor may be forever changed after last year’s fire destroyed the historic Coast Guard boathouse and town pier, but one thing remains unchanged: the heart and soul of the picturesque fishing village that is Chilmark’s downtown.
Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the July 12 fire, a fitting day for the dedication of the rebuilt drive-on dock. A large group of Chilmark elected leaders, emergency service chiefs and residents gathered in Menemsha to mark the occasion.
Chilmark selectman Warren Doty set the tone of gratitude and appreciation.
“On July 13 we came down here last year and we were just devastated at how much one fire could destroy — we just had charred remains,” Mr. Doty said. “It took a lot of concentrated effort from the town of Chilmark with very little assistance from anyone else to pull this off and to rebuild this pier. We are very lucky to have some excellent contractors and excellent local people to help us do it.”
The fire broke out a little after 2 p.m. on July 12, 2010, a steamy summer day much like Tuesday, at the height of the summer season on the Vineyard. Menemsha village was crowded with tourists, summer residents, fishermen and recreational boaters when the historic Coast Guard boathouse went up in flames. The village was evacuated and every firefighter on the Island responded to the scene.
Later a seven-month long investigation by federal, state and local authorities could not determine the cause of the fire, only that it had started at the connection of the two piers.
But Tuesday was a day to move forward in Menemsha. The Rev. Arlene Bodge of the Chilmark Community Church opened the ceremony with a blessing of the harbor.
“Let the world see and know that like a phoenix rising from the ashes this town pier, which was cast down, is raised up,” Reverend Bodge said. “Things that had grown old are being made new.”
Chilmark selectmen gave special medals of commendation to those who assisted in the speedy response and to people who helped make the new pier a reality. Police, fire and emergency response departments from every town on the Island were honored, as were town employees, contractors, Coast Guard station Menemsha and state representatives.
“It was unbelievable that our firefighters were able to get down here and control it as quickly as they did and we really thank them for that,” said selectman and board chairman Frank Fenner Jr.
The selectmen gave special thanks to town executive secretary Tim Carroll.
“Tim was the first firefighter there responding to the fire with our new fire truck and was spraying the fire right from the beginning to keep it from backing down the road to harm the rest of Menemsha,” Mr. Doty said. “From that moment on Tim has been extremely involved in every part of this project and has really put in hours and hours of extra time to make sure all this got done.”
Pier designers and engineers Kent Healy and Bill Austin were also recognized.
“This new pier designed was by Ken and Bill to make sure it’s straight and strong, that it will last beyond any of our lifetimes and that it will never burn again,” Mr. Doty said. His comments drew large cheers from the crowd.
Mr. Fenner said there is still work to be done, but the need to open the public pier in time for summer trumped the remaining items on the punch list.
Coast Guard station Menemsha chief petty officer Jason Olsen said he and Mr. Doty met with a design team last Thursday for a site visit to begin plans for a new boathouse. Though the project is still at the mercy of federal budget negotiations, Mr. Olsen said the Coast Guard wanted to begin the design and permitting process so they could move as quickly as possible.
There is no time frame yet for building a new boathouse. Once a design is finished, Mr. Olsen said they will make it available for public inspection and comment.
On Tuesday many shared personal stories of where they were when the fire began and were grateful to be able to return to their home slips. Capt. Robin Robinson of the Banjo recalled that he was able to get Banjo and others out of the harbor, including hauling a burning boat that sank on its way out of the harbor.
“My friend called and said Menemsha is burning,” she said. “It was really amazing. By the end of the day I was black, I was covered in soot.”
Ms. Robinson said she was impressed the pier was completed in a year and was happy to have the Banjo back in its berth as of Monday afternoon.
“I can still smell the fire,” Chilmark resident Carol Brown Goldberg said. “Fire is awesome, but watching it from Lobsterville, it was so sad.”
She picked up a piece of the charred dock at the end of May before the harbor was cleaned of any remnants. It now sits in her front hall as a memory.
Rabbi Jerry Davidson, a seasonal resident, summed up the afternoon when he noted the ceremony was another example of the Vineyard community coming together by converting a disaster to a blessing.
“There is the sense of unity we experience when a community is really concerned about everybody and reaches out to everyone,” Mr. Davidson said. “This dock is a microcosm of it all because it really represents in the deepest sense a community.” He continued:
“It brings together the commercial role of fishing, it brings together the seasonal and year-round residents and it’s a place where people just love to look at the blueness of the sky and see the billowing clouds and catch a white sail on the water and fall in love again with life. In that sense we are really together.”
The ceremony concluded with Merrily Fenner leading a rendition of God Bless America, and the voices of the Chilmark community floated over the harbor into the summer evening.