Four years ago this week, Kevin O’Brien Jr. walked inside the Sag Harbor Cinema, blanketed in thick smoke and insufferable heat, feeling his way into the dark building. He could feel the velvet rope that ran the length of the entrance way. Then the popcorn machine. But he could see nothing.
He carried with him a thermal sensor that measures heat in bright colors. In a normal room, where there was not a raging blaze nearby, the sensor would display blacks and whites. On that day, December 16, 2016, when a fire that started in a neighboring building threatened to consume the historic cinema, it lit up in pinks and purples and oranges.
It’s way too hot, his father, longtime volunteer and former chief of the Sag Harbor Fire Department, Kevin O’Brien Sr., told him. Outfitted in full turnout gear, the elder Mr. O’Brien had just a bit of bare skin on his neck and ears and could feel the heat. This isn’t right, he said to his son.
Moments later, father and son and the rest of their team of volunteers scrambled back out onto Main Street — just before the cinema’s ceiling collapsed where they had stood.
The younger Mr. O’Brien tells this story in a new, five-minute documentary released this week about the fire that destroyed the cinema and two neighboring buildings on a frigid day when the wind howled and water froze the moment it landed. Told through the eyewitness accounts of five of the firefighters who were there that day, the film reveals some of the dangers and difficulties they faced, and the unique perspectives each had as the Sag Harbor department and 16 other departments battled the fire.
The film is being released by the Sag Harbor Cinema, now a non-profit cinema arts center, as an effort to preserve the story of the heroic attempt to save, not only the cinema building, but much of Main Street, and to underscore the sacrifices local volunteers made in the effort.
Hearing the story of the fire for the first time, Jamie Hook, the cinema’s executive director, said he was immediately struck by something he had never considered.
“Having come from New York and other big cities, you’re aware that being a fireman is a salaried job,” said Mr. Hook, who was the producer of the short film. “Here, I realized, these guys are volunteers. That’s the biggest thing that struck me: these are your friends and neighbors.”
Mr. Hook said the weight of that realization was driven home in a conversation he had with firefighter Tom Gardella, who was chief of the department at the time of the fire, and who repeats a version of the story in the film.
“The first thing he thought of was, is anyone in harm’s way,” Mr. Hook recalled. “And the second was, some of my firefighters might die today.”
The film, which is intended to be used as a trailer opening each of the cinema’s screenings of movies, was directed by Sam Hamilton, who grew up in Sag Harbor, and has been involved with documenting many of the activities both at the cinema and with the Sag Harbor Partnership. Mr. Hamilton was a junior at Columbia University when the fire raged at the cinema.
“I remember waking up and seeing all the footage, the aerial photos, and feeling helpless, watching my hometown burn like that,” he remembered.
Mr. Hamilton collected a wide number of images from the day, including still images from Michael Heller, the Sag Harbor Express photographer who shot over 1,000 photos of the fire and its aftermath, and film footage also provided by The Express, as well as archival footage of the Easter fire from 1995 that burned down the Emporium Hardware Store. The imagery is used to help illustrate the stories told by the five firemen, who were all filmed sitting in the auditorium of the newly restored and renovated theater.
Mr. Hamilton drew particular attention to the photos by Mr. Heller, who is a volunteer with the East Hampton Fire Department, saying “the photos that told the most compelling story were Mike’s; his ability to get into the action and record these historic moments is unparalleled.”
“He tells the story of the hardships,” Mr. Hamilton continued, “the weather, the terrible conditions of the coldest day of the year; the extent of the blaze they were up against.”
The narrative of the film, which Mr. Hamilton concedes is highly focused due to the short length, follows the course of the day as told by the five men, starting with current-Chief Steve Miller who recalls driving home from work early that morning and hearing the call go out for a fire on Main Street, alert to the fact that “the worst fire you can get is one on Main Street.”
He’s followed by Mr. Gardella, the first firefighter on the scene, who, responding to what he believed was a deck fire, soon realized that what he had “was a major situation.”
There’s former chief Bruce Schiavoni, who worked in front of the cinema all day — “taking in all the smoke,” according to Mr. Hamilton — and who took charge of all the mutual aid departments. And Mr. O’Brien Jr., the fire department’s first assistant chief, who worked to help stop the fire from burning farther up Main Street.
One of the more compelling stories is told by Ed Downes, also a former chief of the department, who along with his team, climbed a fire escape to get to the roof of the cinema when they discovered fire coming up the parapet wall.
“We don’t know if the fire’s below us now,” he says in the film.
They decide to regroup down on the ground, and as they’re making their way back down the fire escape, they look back and see that the fire has self-ventilated and watch as it blows through all the skylights.
The firefighters talk about the physical conditions, the cold, where gloves turned into rocks, and the need to keep the water hoses running so they wouldn’t freeze up. They are paired with images of helmets frozen with icicles, fire trucks caked in ice, against a backdrop of lurching orange flames.
The visual aspect of the movie is very powerful, and the stories that are told are engaging. But even standing, watching the fire that day, there was an unusual silence, peppered with occasional shouts, and crackling of wood burning.
You don’t hear that, of course, but bringing an almost subconscious sense of drama and emotion to the film is a soundtrack composed by Oscar-nominee Carter Burwell, himself a volunteer firefighter for the Amagansett Fire Department.
“Firefighters don’t talk much about the work they do. They keep things pretty close to the vest. If you see them in the film, they’re all sitting there pretty straight faced or with just a wry smile,” said Mr. Burwell. “The people telling the story are all firefighters, but they are so understated I thought the music needed to amplify the emotional beats.”
Working during a pandemic has its challenges, and Mr. Burwell — who has scored almost all of the Coen brothers’ films, including “The Big Lebowski,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Fargo,” plus dozens of others — and Mr. Hamilton never got to work in the same room together.
“We worked in isolation, and would send files through Drop Box,” he said.
It seems to be the way things are done now, and after the film industry has been essentially shut down since March, Mr. Burwell said he sees it finally beginning to open a bit. In fact he is working on a score for a new film by Joel Coen, albeit in much the same way he worked with Mr. Hamilton.
“We talk on the phone, send things back and forth to each other,” said Mr. Burwell. “He’s editing on his own at his home in California, I’m here in Amagansett.”
Mr. Burwell has been a firefighter for his adopted hometown for seven years — his truck, however, was not called the day of the cinema fire —and has a healthy respect for the work the volunteers do.
“It’s an important part of my life,” he said.
He noted that it was the artist John Alexander who got him interested in joining the department.
“He was a volunteer with Amagansett, and, at lunch one day, he was speaking very highly about it,” recalled Mr. Burwell. “I could see they needed help,” he said, noting the signs the department had put up looking for volunteers.
“No department really wants a 65-year-old movie composer in their ranks, so clearly they were desperate,” he laughed.
But he seriously worried about how local departments will continue to fill their rolls, and protect their Main Streets.
“A lot of young people can’t afford to live here,” he said, “because the cost of real estate is so high.”
He said his decision to help with the film about the cinema fire and the volunteers who showed up that day was “obvious.”
The short film, now entitled “Our Own Main Street Fire,” was to be screened along with a series of movies at the cinema, starting on December 16, the fourth anniversary of the fire. It was intended to be a run up to a grand re-opening on Christmas Day.
But restrictions due to the coronavirus and health concerns changed that.
“We thought maybe we’d have ‘Wonder Woman’ on one screen, then maybe some foreign film from Europe on another, and then maybe kids watching Christmas movies upstairs,” said Mr. Hook. “And we hoped that this would be a trailer to be shown in front of all those movies.”
Instead, the cinema has initiated what Mr. Hook called a “virtual recommitment to our virtual cinema.” That involves a revamped website, launched on Wednesday, that is more intuitive and user friendly, he said, and offering expanded programs and a more diverse slate of films.
“We want to improve the experience,” he said.
Mr. Hook added he didn’t know when the cinema will be able to officially open, suggesting they may be closed as long as Memorial Day.
“We will continue to do what we can, and hope we’ll be open soon,” he said.
In the meantime, said Mr. Hook, an audience can enjoy the story of the fire that nearly destroyed the village’s movie theater, told by five firefighters “sitting in a cinema that would not have been there had it not have been for them saving it.”
To see the film, click on “Our Own Main Street Fire” or watch it below: