New Beginnings in Menemsha

It has been seven long months since the investigation into the Menemsha fire began by top federal and state experts, including the state fire marshal, the United States Coast Guard and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. And now the investigation has ended, not with a bang but something far more open-ended: The cause of the fire that destroyed the Coast Guard boathouse and forced the evacuation of the village of Menemsha last July cannot be precisely determined.

There are two possibilities. It could have been a carelessly discarded lit cigarette — the weather had been hot with no rain and conditions were tinder dry beneath a pier whose timbers were soaked with creosote. Or it could have been faulty wiring, either beneath the West Dock or the wiring that led to the boathouse. Interviews conducted during the investigation turned up at least one charter operator and a fishing boat owner who had experienced trouble with the electrical service on the dock.

In the course of the investigation, electrical wiring from the docks was removed and examined. Coast Guard officers who were on duty that day were interviewed closely, including the officer who went down to the boathouse just after lunch to work out in the exercise room and was the first to call in the fire. There were many other interviews as well: Camera-toting tourists, summer residents, fishermen, charter boat captains and Coasties who live and work in the area and were there that day were all questioned closely for their accounts of what they saw. Images and time stamps captured on digital cameras were collected and examined. The interviews are included in the Coast Guard report released this week and available for reading on the Web. And while few clues emerge as to the cause of the fire, the accounts serve as a vivid reenactment of sorts of that Monday, the twelfth of July. The hot, sunny day. The strong winds from the south-southwest. The smell of smoke. The sight of flames arcing high into the air over the boathouse. Dialing 911. People running. Boats ablaze. The searing heat of the fire.

In the end investigators concluded that there is not enough evidence to pinpoint the cause of the fire — except to say that it started outside the boathouse. The investigation has been closed.

The wait for this report has been frustrating, especially for the Chilmark selectmen who took charge on day one after the fire to set plans in motion to rebuild the town-owned pier that surrounded the boathouse and was destroyed in the fire. Those plans are now well under way; in fact construction has already begun on the filled dock. And again the selectmen are to be commended for their leadership and levelheaded thinking in a time of crisis.

With no clear answers about the cause of the fire, issues of liability and insurance claims may now linger for months and possibly even years and this will be the next headache for the selectmen to manage.

But it is time to move on in Menemsha with a forward-looking plan for starting over, and the selectmen are doing just that. The extensive pier area around the site of the former boathouse will be rebuilt by the coming summer. The Coast Guard has put plans in motion to rebuild the historic boathouse, with money slotted for the next federal budget cycle.

That will need careful monitoring too, from Washington to Chilmark and back again.