Maze of hoses shows from aerial view
efforts to contain holiday fire. — Don Lambert

A disastrous Independence Day fire completely destroyed the Café Moxie restaurant and left the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore badly damaged, shutting down Main street Vineyard Haven for the entire day and leaving the town, its business community and much of the Island in a state of shock at the outset of peak summer season.

But the owner of the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore promised yesterday that it would reopen.

At an emergency meeting of the Tisbury selectmen yesterday, called to plan the town’s response to the fire, the board was told that bookstore owner Jon Nelson is determined to get the book shop up and running again as soon as possible.

Mr. Nelson’s commitment came as a welcome relief to many. Further relief was the news from Tisbury fire chief John Schilling that an inspection of the Bunch of Grapes building had shown that while it was seriously damaged, it would not have to be demolished.

But that was about the extent of the good news as the town struggled to cope with a devastating fire whose long-term consequences to the town and the business community cannot yet be measured.

The cause of the fire, the biggest on the Island in years, is still unknown and under investigation, led by assistant fire chief James Rogers, a state-certified fire investigator, who will work with insurance investigators. Delayed until after the Tisbury street fair, set for tonight, the investigation begins tomorrow.

Chief Schilling would only say the fire started in the basement of Café Moxie.

On Friday morning the communications center first received a call at 9:21 a.m. Chief Schilling said it is unclear who placed the first call; at least four or five calls were made to the communication center within a two-minute span.

Shortly after 9 a.m. restaurant owner Austin Racine, the only person in the building, was in the kitchen when he noticed smoke seeping up from the basement, which is used for storage.

“I had been working down there all morning and didn’t notice anything,” he said.

The response was immediate and all-inclusive.

The call was for a working structure fire — on Main street on a busy holiday weekend. As part of standing mutual aid agreements with Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, volunteer firefighters from those two towns also rushed to the scene.

First on scene was Tisbury firefighter Gary Sylvia, who happened to be working on Main street that morning. Within minutes a Tisbury pumper truck arrived. Firefighters hauled a heavy water hose into the basement and tried to knock down the flames. But the fire was already too big and volatile for an interior attack, Chief Schilling said. A window above the basement blew out from the heat and scattered shards of glass all over the firefighters.

“The [firefighters] relied on their training and turned around just as they should . . . there was already heavy fire and smoke rolling across the basement cellar. It was hard to see and incredibly dangerous; there was simply too much fire,” he said.

The entire Tisbury fire fleet — one ladder truck, three pumpers, a rescue truck and utility truck — responded to the scene.

Tisbury police were just as expedient; special seasonal officer Joseph Ballote was near Café Moxie writing a traffic ticket when he received a call about thick black smoke pouring out of the restaurant’s basement.

Police chief John Cashin was also in the area, and quickly ran to the scene. He joined Mr. Ballote in evacuating buildings in the area. Volunteer firefighters from all six Island towns arrived. The Oak Bluffs ladder truck drove up the wrong end of Main street and parked in front of Mardell’s gift shop, while the Tisbury ladder truck took up a position in front of the Bunch of Grapes.

Chief Schilling estimated that over 50 firefighters responded to the fire. As in all emergency situations, a chain of command was quickly established, with Chief Schilling taking the role of incident commander.

He contacted NSTAR and had the power shut off for most of Main street so firefighters could launch an aerial attack without worry about overhead power lines. He focused on controlling the movement of the fire to prevent it from destroying the adjoining Bunch of Grapes and perhaps other buildings on Main street.

“The key decision was whether this should be an offensive or defensive attack [of the fire], but really the choice was made for me. It was clear early the [Café Moxie] was a total loss . . . the focus was containing the fire and saving Bunch of Grapes,” he said.

It was uncertain at first whether it could be saved. The two buildings shared a common wall; both were wooden structures built before the advent of fire codes and fire walls. To make matters worse, both buildings had balloon framing which uses continuous framing studs running from sill to eve, increasing the possibility of collapse.

Chief Schilling said firefighters worked to create venting in both buildings so they could direct the fire where they needed it to go. They punched ventilation holes in the ceiling of Café Moxie and used a chain saw to cut slits in the second floor of Bunch of Grapes. They placed large fans in front of the building to control the direction of the fire.

While battling the blaze, firefighters found good news and bad news.

The good news was the entire second floor had been renovated recently and fire stops were placed in the wall between the two structures. The bad news was an old tin ceiling between the first and second floor of Bunch of Grapes, which made it difficult for firefighters to reach the smoldering blaze between the first and second floors of the bookstore.

After battling the fire for over two hours, flames were still shooting out of what remained of the roof of Café Moxie. Firefighters knocked down the flames with water and fire suppression foam, and by noon all visible flames were out.

The common wall between Café Moxie and Bunch of Grapes was badly burned, and smoke poured out of the second and third floor windows. A skylight on the roof of Bunch of Grapes was removed so firefighters could ventilate the fire and attack the flames from above.

Around 12:30 p.m. there was a scramble when fire officials determined the remains of the café were unstable and might collapse. The sidewalk in front of the restaurant had sunk several feet into the ground, and emergency personnel ordered all observers to get behind the yellow police tape that was used to create a perimeter around the fire.

Chief Schilling decided the building was a hazard and needed to come down. Just after 1 p.m. a backhoe was brought in to tear down what remained of the café. The operator pushed the remaining walls and roof into a jagged pile of charred timber. The sign was saved, along with a yellow bench that sat out front of the restaurant.

The focus then turned to the bookstore.

Firefighters continued to battle the blaze well into the afternoon and stayed on the scene into the evening to monitor any flareups.

Chief Schilling lauded all the firefighters.

“Here it is 9 a.m. on the Fourth of July, and 50-plus volunteers push aside their holiday plans to fight this fire and try to save these buildings. I know a lot of my men were cleaning the trucks and getting them ready for the Edgartown [Fourth of July] parade later in the day, and others had planned to spend the holiday with their families. But when the call came in they answered it and they answered it quickly,” he said.

He said the fire also demonstrated why Island fire departments need proper equipment and training. He said some have questioned in recent years whether all the down-Island towns needed their own ladder trucks. Those questions were put to rest on Friday, when each vehicle played a vital role in battling the blaze.

The Tisbury ladder truck was used to launch an aerial attack from the north and western side of Café Moxie; the Oak Bluffs ladder truck fought the fire from the western side and was equipped with a special ladder that maneuvered up and over the dangling power lines. The Edgartown ladder truck was equipped with a special air compressor that was used to refill the firefighters’ self-contained breathing units.

The chief said the Bunch of Grapes building can be saved.

He also praised the business community and volunteers for supporting the firefighters during a long, hot day. Someone handed out sandwiches and watermelon; bottled waters arrived by the cooler-full.

“The community reaction was remarkable, there was this outpouring of support both for the firefighters and for the owners. Everyone was going through this together . . . it was the kind of response you can take some small comfort from during an otherwise horrible situation,” Chief Schilling said.

Tisbury emergency medical services set up a first aid station behind the Capawock Theatre where they treated fire personnel and members of the public for smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion. Two firefighters were transported to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, largely as a precaution.

Both Chief Schilling and Chief Cashin said rubberneckers were a problem.

“It was quite frustrating,” Chief Cashin said.

The town now faces the season not only without one of its biggest businesses and one of its better restaurants, but also with the prospect of months of disruption in the heart of Main street as reconstruction takes place.

Selectmen will try to rally state and federal representatives for compensation. It was suggested the town might be able to get disaster relief including long-term, low-interest loans.

Meanwhile, the town will go ahead with its annual street fair tonight with new purpose — both to show the town is still open for business and to raise money for those affected by the fire. Selectmen have appealed for a big turnout, and for people to come with deep pockets.

Mr. Racine, who only bought Café Moxie in May, and who watched his business dreams burned and then demolished on Friday, said he would cook at the fair.

He will use the kitchen at the Artcliff Diner to prepare the food. The original plan was to do turkey legs for the fair, but they burned. Now they will sell falafels.

Mr. Racine previously worked at the Artcliff.

“He’s almost like a brother to me,” said the diner’s owner, Gina Stanley, yesterday. “I told him he can do whatever he wants in my kitchen. And if he needs to, he can work here.”

She also volunteered the Artcliff for a function to thank those who fought the fire.

“It just breaks my heart, what happened,” she said.

The immediate problem for the selectmen on Monday was disguising the scars. They authorized the department of public works to build an eight-foot high plywood barricade outside the damaged buildings. No sooner had they passed the motion than DPW director Fred LaPiana rose.

“And with that, sir I’ll get busy,” he said, and left.

And when the chairman of the selectmen, Denys Wortman, asked those who had lost the most — Mr. Racine of Café Moxie and Ann Nelson of the Bunch of Grapes — what else could be done for them, they responded not with requests but with gratitude.

“One day at a time, you know,” Mr. Racine said.

Ann Nelson, who owns the Bunch of Grapes building, also could only offer thanks.

“I am overwhelmed and deeply appreciative of the outpouring of sympathy and support that I have received from the entire Island community,” she said.

She deferred to Steve Fischer, executive director of New England Independent Book Sellers Association.

Mr. Fischer said he had spoken to her son Jon Nelson, who now owns the business. “The one thing he really wanted me to express was that he has a 110 per cent intention to reconstruct Bunch of Grapes,” he said.

Mr. Nelson was due to arrive on the Vineyard yesterday.

Mr. Fischer had one request of the selectmen, relating to the clock outside the Bunch of Grapes, which stopped at 9:57 a.m. marking the time the power went off and business on Main street shut down on the day of the Independence Day fire.

“I would like to see them get the clock running,” he said.

And indeed, what better symbol could there be of a town once again moving forward.