Menemsha Boathouse Fire, July 12, 2010

Nobody died.

Some history, in the form of a beautiful old building with a signature red roof and a wharf, was destroyed and some boats and a truck burned, but most importantly nobody died, or was even badly hurt. Monday’s Menemsha fire was a big material loss but thankfully not a human tragedy.

Quite the reverse, in fact. It was a demonstration of individual bravery and collective response which deserves to be celebrated.

Together the volunteer firefighters from six Island towns worked to avert what could have been a bigger disaster. The emergency medical technicians gathered from all over to support the firefighters; the nearby businesses provided support in the form of refreshments for the emergency responders. They were much needed on a hot July day with the sun beating down and the huge fire creating a searing wall of heat in the harborfront village.

There was an orderly evacuation by police and firemen, who went door to door. The harbor master, the Coast Guard, local fishermen, and members of the Wampanoag tribe managed to get most of the boats moved away from the burning dock. Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority buses took the evacuees out. The selectmen met immediately and repeatedly and acted without grandstanding to set in motion the town’s recovery, including the declaration late Wednesday of a state of emergency in Menemsha that will clear the way for quick action to rebuild some kind of temporary walkway around the harbor.

Everyone did what they were supposed to, and often a great deal more than might have reasonably been expected of them. The people who walked into the smoke and flames, the people who dove into the water to save boats, did it all, let’s remember, for no pay.

It is nothing short of breathtaking. We hear so much about fat cats and incompetence, corruption and cheating, whether in politics, business, sports or personal relationships. To witness the Vineyard community coming together so selflessly reminds us that people are good. And for those who lament what the Island has lost, Monday was about what we have held fast. It was a shining example of our commitment to helping each other, even when it hurts.

Our firefighters, and others who simply and bravely joined them from the waterfront, did not turn back as ash and soot rained down to mix with their sweat and flames leapt up at their undoubtedly red, aching eyes, staring through the thick smoke at all that was at stake. Their skill, judgment and bravery saved much property and certainly lives.

Moreover, our volunteer men and women who work as emergency responders do this week in and week out — in the heat of summer and in the icy darkness of winter, they are always there. Thankfully it is rare that the circumstances in which they serve are so dramatic. So often they drop whatever they are doing, be it personal or professional, whether they feel like it or not, to respond to someone else’s troubles. By the time they get there, the trouble may already be past: It was a false alarm, or the earliest responders took care of it quickly. Still they go, every time, never knowing what will be asked of them. They go to training, hoping to know what to do and yet never to have to do it.

They really are heroes, and we ought to say it more often: thank you.