Chief Says Cause of Fire May Never Be Known

A scene from the Main Street fire in Sag Harbor on December 16. Michael Heller photo

By Kathryn G. Menu & Christine Sampson

The cause of the December 16 fire that destroyed a handful of buildings, including the Sag Harbor Cinema, displacing businesses and tenants, remains a mystery, according to Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin McGuire.

“We may never have a cause,” he said on Wednesday. “This may go down as ‘undetermined.’”

Chief McGuire said he expected formal reports from both the East Hampton Town Fire Marshal and the Suffolk County Police Department Arson Squad later this month, but that neither agency has given him any indication that they have discovered the cause of the fire.

“At the end of the day, there was no loss of life, so we have a lot to be thankful for,” Chief McGuire said.

A handful of buildings, however, were destroyed or significantly damaged, including the Sag Harbor Cinema and the Meridian Building, the latter of which was torn down after the fire. The front portion of the movie theater was also demolished, and the future of a third building at 96 Main Street, which housed the Brown Harris Stevens real estate office and an apartment, remains unclear. This week, Sag Harbor building inspector Tom Preiato said he has been in touch with Donald Katz, the property owner, and has requested an engineer’s report assessing its structural integrity.

“… I am suspect as to the integrity of the building,” Mr. Prieato said in an email Tuesday. “It is an issue for general health and safety and could also affect the adjoining structure.”

The economic health of the village’s businesses is another pressing issue. On December 23, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and State Senator Kenneth LaValle wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo requesting he ask the the U.S. Small Business Administration to grant the village a special disaster declaration. This would make businesses eligible for the SBA Disaster Recovery program, which opens up access to low-interest loans for the dozens of Sag Harbor businesses that have suffered financial losses as a result of the fire, which occurred during the peak holiday shopping season. Sag Harbor Mayor Sandra Schroeder said this week the village has also reached out to Governor Cuomo with the same request.

“We’re trying,” Mayor Schroeder said on Monday. “We haven’t heard back from the governor yet, but we’re hopeful.”

In order to qualify for the designation, at least 25 village businesses needed to show they were financially affected by the fire. According to Mr. Thiele, more than double number have reported losses. Mr. Thiele noted that the fire, which closed Main Street that Friday, December 16, occurred during a critical time of year for businesses that depend on holiday sales to see them through a cold winter off-season. He added there would likely be a long-term impact for a number of business owners, as the hole in the middle of Main Street will not likely be filled in for some time.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll get a favorable response,” he said. “We’re bugging them every day. We had in the neighborhood of 50 businesses that reported some adverse economic effect.”

For Mr. Thiele, a lifelong Sag Harbor resident, the disaster declaration is a first important step for Main Street. After that, he said, it is time to focus on rebuilding what has been lost.

“Obviously, the businesses are owned privately but on the government side we need to come to some sort of consensus as to see what we’d like to see done,” he said.