One of the Island's most historic mansions, the Corbin-Norton house on Ocean Park burned to the ground in the midst of a heavy gale Monday night.
By the time firemen arrived, the house was fully involved, fanned by northeast winds as high as 40 miles per hour. Oak Bluffs fire chief Dennis P. Alley said it took firemen from three towns more than four hours to gain control of the fire and prevent it from spreading into the neighborhood. Mr. Alley said he determined the cause of the fire to be electrical wiring in an outlet behind the wall in the first-floor living room.
The $3 million mansion is considered a total loss. Peter Norton, the owner, said on Wednesday he plans to rebuild. Mr. Norton is a former computer guru, creator of the Norton Utilities programs, who sold his company, Symantec, in 1990 and has since devoted himself to philanthropic work.
"This is a personal loss," said Renee Balter, executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association. "I think people in our community feel a deep connection to that house." She said the home was one of the most important restorations in the community. "This is something you don't expect. Until you lose it, you don't know how important it is."
Firemen were called to the scene at 4:24 p.m. The ocean storm, with its wind-driven rains, made firefighting a challenge well into the night.
The fire was first noticed by Fred Sonnenberg and his wife, Marion Burke, Camp Ground residents who were driving home from the post office Monday afternoon. When they circled Ocean Park, as they have done many times, they saw something unusual about the house.
Ms. Burke said: "We noticed smoke coming out of the chimney." She said her first thought was that perhaps someone was in residence in the house, which is ordinarily empty this time of year. "Then we saw smoke coming out of the eaves."
Mr. Sonnenberg said, "We went to the police station. I told them the Norton house was on fire. The young fellow called it in.
"As I left the police station, we could see flames coming out of the lower left-hand side of the house," Mr. Sonnenberg said.
Ms. Burke said: "Within minutes, volunteer firemen began arriving. It was a sad thing to see. I didn't want to watch it. We watched it as it was restored from an old decaying house. We saw all that work go into it. It was a sad thing to see - all those years of work, and now it is gone."
Some 65 firemen from Tisbury, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs converged on the fire. Chief Alley said as soon as he arrived on the scene, he knew the house would be lost. "It was an easy call," he said. "The minute I got there, I knew this one we were going to lose." The main concern, he said, was to protect the neighborhood and the firemen.
"I must publicly thank the help of Tisbury and Edgartown firemen and all the help they gave," the chief said. "They did a hell of a job."
Tisbury firefighters brought two engines, and one engine came from Edgartown to join the four engines from Oak Bluffs. Oak Bluffs also had its ladder truck and two ambulances on the scene.
A command post was established in front of the house, using the town's newest piece of equipment, a rescue truck equipped with high-powered lights. The command post, managed by deputy fire chief Ralph Norton, coordinated the efforts of firemen, police and emergency personnel. Seaview avenue and surrounding roads were shut off to traffic until 8 p.m.
Edgartown firemen stood next to Oak Bluffs firemen in manning the high-powered stream guns.
In their initial efforts, firemen couldn't send water onto the blaze at the front of the house, because high winds blew away the streams of water. Instead, firemen worked along the sides.
Through the night, firefighters poured an estimated 1.6 million gallons of water onto the blaze. Said the chief: "We had to quickly shift to defense fire mode. We pulled back all the small hand lines and went to the master stream guns. We had five master streams on the fire." Each gun was able to shoot 1,200 gallons a minute onto the fire.
There was a loud crash when the chimney fell onto the roof. It fell a second time from the second floor to the ground, as the building collapsed into itself.
Lieut. Tony White said firemen were dispatched to evacuate the houses downwind of the burning house. Mr. White said there was concern that the heavy smoke might overwhelm the neighbors.
High winds carried large embers across the town. Fortunately, the rainy night and a fully soaked landscape helped to keep the fire from spreading.
A crew of firemen was assigned to keeping a continuous wall of water on the garage behind the house. Inside the garage were two Jeeps and a BMW. Chief Alley said the spray prevented the fire from spreading beyond the house itself.
The intensity of the heat was readily visible even during the fire. Glass on windows melted into puddles on windowsills. A large steel truss supporting the house lost its shape, melted and fell into the flames.
Firemen had a difficult time positioning themselves to fight the fire, as the wind blew stinging rain into their eyes. Neighbors watched the blaze from the porches of vacant summer houses along Samoset, Naumkeag and Ocean avenues. Ocean avenue and Naumkeag avenue turned into rivers as water ran away from the fire scene. And through it all, the heavy rain continued, driven nearly horizontal by the wind.
Chief Alley, who has been a firemen in town for 46 years, said Monday's blaze reminded him of January 1965, when the Ocean View burned down. "I was a member of the aerial ladder then," he recalled. "I was at the tip of the ladder for six to eight hours in that fire. This one was very similar in the way it started and burned. It went quick. The weather was cold and windy."
Chief Alley described how he believed this fire started. "A tremendous amount of heat had built up within the house before it was detected," he said. When the fire finally broke out, he said, it was like an explosion. "There was a short in the wiring in an outlet in the front area of the house. The short wasn't bad enough to kick a breaker. The wiring just kept heating and heating."
The chief said this kind of fire leaves a special signature in a wire that can't be found anywhere else. Copper melts in a characteristic way, forming balls that could only be created by a short.
"We searched through the rubble. We looked at the burn pattern. We dug down in the rubble and found it," he said.
The fire chief also found a discrepancy in the reporting of the fire. "There is a time difference between the automatic smoke detector alarm system going off and the time that the communication center was notified of the fire," the chief said.
The chief said the fire probably started four hours before it was first detected. When heat from the fire broke the window at the front of the house, high winds from the outside provided fresh oxygen to the smoldering, hot interior. The chief said: "All of a sudden, there is a big explosion. That is the way back draft, a flash-over happens. It is almost like taking five gallons of kerosene and throwing it in the air over a little flame."
Firemen worked through the night, some of them without any sleep.
Robert Kinnecom, who picks up the morning newspapers from the Patriot Too at the Oak Bluffs harbor, drove by Ocean Park at 4 a.m. Tuesday. He found firemen still there, and he brought them coffee and doughnuts. "It was still smoldering," Mr. Kinnecom said later. "It is so sad to see a landmark like that go."
Throughout the fire-fighting effort, the Island chapter of the Red Cross provided soup, coffee and doughnuts to the firemen. Two firemen suffered minor injuries. The chief said a Tisbury firefighter strained his back. An Oak Bluffs fireman was injured when one of the lines blew, but he later returned to the scene.
Later Tuesday morning, with areas in the rubble still sending up small clouds of steam, firemen began the task of pumping out the basement full of water.
Alice Beers, a town resident, was one of the quiet stream of visitors who came to see the site Tuesday. "Devastating. Absolutely devastating," she said. "I was here last night watching the fire and the flames coming out of the third floor. I have to say that the firemen were spectacular to save the surrounding houses.
"This home is loved by everybody here. I think we're all heartsick," she said.
When Oak Bluffs resident Joe Scotland saw the damage, he said, "It's just so sad. We come and we sit on their porch during the fireworks," he said, noting that his son and Mr. Norton are friends. "It's such a beautiful home. He put so much work into it."
Mr. Norton returned to the Vineyard Tuesday morning to survey the damage and take his own pictures. "It is too important to the community to not rebuild," he said.
Chris Dallmus of Design Associates in Cambridge came over from Nantucket to view the scene with Mr. Norton. He was the architect for the restoration of the home. "[Mr. Norton] has instructed Neil Galligan and me to put together a plan for the reconstruction of the Corbin-Norton house as it once stood," Mr. Dallmus told the Gazette.
Mr. Norton bought the house in 1991, a century after it was built.
The house was built by Philip Corbin, a hardware magnate who lived in Connecticut.
Mr. Dallmus said to rebuild the house will require going over new hurdles. "We need to address some zoning and building code issues," he said, and that means meetings with town officials about how much of the house is grandfathered into prior zoning. On another front, Mr. Dallmus wants to do yet more research. "Our hope is to gain as much information about the old house as we can from what still remains," he said. This will involve setting aside parts of the house and sifting through rubble.
Next week, Mr. Dallmus and an engineer will meet at the site to discuss the next steps. "We will assess the structural condition of the building." Meanwhile, Oak Bluffs police chief Joseph Carter said he has assigned a 24-hour police detail to the site.
"We've got a pretty good set of specifications for the house," Mr. Dallmus said. "A good portion of the house has been documented. We are going to do this one step at a time."
"This was an extraordinary effort in historic restoration," said Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust, recalling the original three-year project. "They went to great ends to rebuild the house as it was. They took paint scrapings from the old house to get the original color scheme. They found original moldings. All the ornamental millwork was completely restored to the original, even down to the hardware and hinges."
Mr. Scott said: "There is no doubt in my mind that Peter Norton's restoration of the house had a vast ripple effect. It stimulated other property owners."
Said Mrs. Balter, who is also chairman of the town's historical commission: "I can tell you that his effort to restore the house is one of the single most important contributions to have been brought to Oak Bluffs. This was not just a house that looked Victorian. Peter tried to rebuild the soul of that house. I think that adds to the tragedy of this whole thing."
Chris Burrell and Katherine Wiley also contributed to this story.