By Michael Heller
Nineteen different East End fire chiefs converged on Sag Harbor on December 16 last year with the sole purpose of helping fight and extinguish one of the most serious fires in the village in modern times. As this Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, local fire chiefs took a moment to reflect back on that day, and offered thoughts both on their remembrances of the event and, in the year that has passed since, what they learned as a result of the fire.
When asked about what they remember most, the first answer was almost unanimous.
“It was cold,” said Buddy Wines, a Southampton Fire Department Ex-Chief who was working that day as a Suffolk County Fire & Rescue Services 7th Division Coordinator — an arm of the county that marshals and coordinates resources so that local fire chiefs and incident commanders can concentrate on fighting fires. “I really felt bad for all the guys that were on the front lines of the firefighting, who were having to get wet while trying to extinguish the fire — that’s always brutal. I mean, everybody was cold, but that just makes it even worse; you’re not just cold, your equipment’s freezing at that point.”
Temperatures notwithstanding, other thoughts ranged from specific to philosophical. Sag Harbor Fire Department Chief Tom Gardella, who has been hailed for his job in effectively saving Main Street, was literal in his recollection.
“What I remember is just how fast things escalated,” he said. “As I’m getting into my chief’s car, it’s cold and very windy and I’m thinking to myself, ‘A deck fire on Main Street — I hope it’s something minimal.’ I ended up parking right behind the Brown Harris Stevens building, and as I looked up, the side of the Brown Harris Stevens building on the second floor was already being hit with flames. I climbed up the back fire escape — there was nobody there yet, I was the only one there. I walked around the roof parapet and looked down, and there was a tremendous amount of fire coming from where the movie theater was…so I knew right away that we had a major situation.”
Bridgehampton Fire Department Chief Jeff White had a similar response. “The one thing that sticks in my mind the most is, ‘This is a real fire,’” he said. “I was coming back from Riverhead, and you could see the smoke. I had my pager on and was listening to all the messages, and I could see the smoke over Sag Harbor and was thinking it’s something really serious.”
Ken Wessberg, Jr., the chief of the East Hampton Fire Department, also feared the worst. “I thought we were going to lose the village of Sag Harbor,” he said. “I also thought, though, what a great town we all live in, that we could all pull together when a situation like that happens.”
The latter was not lost on Southampton Fire Department Chief Mike Kampf, either. “I remember how cold it was, and how we all worked together,” he said. “It was a real brotherhood of the whole East End.”
Lessons Learned from A Tragedy
When asked about what aspect of that day they were most proud of — in other words, what was done right — there were some technical answers, but also a consensus among chiefs that things went so well largely because of consistent, across-the-board training the firefighters have, and the sense of brotherhood that comes with it.
“I guess it was that we all worked as a group, as a team,” Mr. Wines said. “I think as a group we all worked well together. It was a difficult situation, without a lot of forethought, and I think everybody performed their job as best they could, with the circumstances involved. It’s really easy to look back and say, ‘Oh, I really wish I’d done this, or should have done that,’ but with the circumstances at the time you forget every little detail as you go back and look at it later.”
In his response, Mr. White had nothing but praise for Mr. Wines. “We were able to get there with what we were supposed to bring, which doesn’t always happen, and we were right there at the beginning, and everybody did what they were supposed to do,” he said. “Interestingly, and aside from communication difficulties, it was a pretty good exercise in mutual aid. The Sag Harbor chiefs and the coordinators did really well with that — really, really well.”
Within the world of firefighting, there is a lot of discussion and emphasis placed on where fire trucks are placed in relation to the building on fire. Mr. Wessberg was most proud of the work done by East Hampton firemen. “Our Hook and Ladder Company #1 was in the perfect spot — that was the best thing that ever happened. The men were at the right spot at the right time.”
Mr. Kampf was most proud of his men. “I think my guys were aggressive, but not overly aggressive,” he said. “We helped make a push into the Brown Harris Stevens building on the south side of the fire, and they really held it. Between them, Sag Harbor and the other firefighters in there with us, we held it there, and that sticks in my head that they did a great job. I think it’s closer to home for Sag Harbor guys, but it was nice to see my guys there with the same heart and feeling.”
Mr. Kampf touched on a point that all of the chiefs agreed upon, when looking back on what went right that day, but it was Mr. Gardella who verbalized it most specifically.
“I think that the thing that we did right, and I learned this not only from my training, but also from the stories from other fires on Main Street, is that you have to determine not where the fire is — where you can see it — but also where the fire is going,” he explained. “Because we had the wind blowing in a certain direction, we knew that if the fire was going to advance it was going to move south toward the Variety Store. So I immediately put units up into the apartments above The Ideal, and on the roof of The Ideal, to strip the walls, cut holes, etc., to make sure that the fire didn’t advance any further than it was. That’s what we did right. In the beginning, it did get kind of hairy. The smoke banked down from the ceiling, and they were pushing it back, but they stopped it right there. If you get into that tunnel vision of focusing on only what you see right there, the next thing you know it’s gone, and has spread into the next building.”
The consensus among all of the chiefs, however, was that by and large the success they had in stopping the fire from becoming a bigger disaster came down to pre-planning, training and drills that fire departments conduct on a regular basis. Not long after the cinema fire, both the East Hampton and Southampton Fire Departments conducted department drills on their Main Streets, with Bridgehampton attending Southampton’s training. When the chiefs were asked what lessons are learned at those kinds of drills with regard to large-scale fires, the answers were fairly consistent.
“I think that with us it really rung that we have a lot of old buildings on our Main Street too,” Mr. Kampf said, “and we’d better make sure that we know where our water is, where to get water if it’s not available, and get early acknowledgements from other departments coming in to help us out, and not to be too proud — these are old buildings, historic buildings, and it can happen to us.”
Mr. White felt that although Bridgehampton’s Main Street was not similar to Sag Harbor’s, some of the principles remain the same. “I think when that happens, what it makes you think about is, ‘What would I do if that was in my district?’ People don’t have the same exact things in their districts. In a way they do, but in a way they don’t. So when you go into a drill like that, you kind of want to envision a worst-case scenario, and then work back, to reverse-engineer it.”
Mr. Wessberg agreed that knowing your resources is key. “Making sure we have a good water supply and manpower,” he said, “and making sure the trucks are staged in the right spot.”
Mr. Wines responded from the coordinator’s point of view. “I guess if there was anything, we might have called for some of the mutual aid a little sooner,” he said, “but that’s getting really picky, because as it’s evolving you don’t really know at that time that you’re going to need 19 mutual-aid fire departments. I really don’t think that there was much that could have been done much better that I was aware of. I didn’t see all of the operations that were in place but from what I saw at command there was a lot of good going on, a lot of proactive calling for additional manpower, or calling for heat, calling for food, calling to make sure all of the provisions were in place for whatever scenario, up to the Air National Guard for foam in case it started to really get away from us. I really don’t know that you could do much more from where I could see.”
For Mr. Gardella, it all comes back to training, and knowing your district. “It’s all about training, and keeping the guys involved. Because we had done so much interior firefighting training, their instincts took over. When they were inside the building conducting an interior attack, when they knew things weren’t right, they right away knew to get out. It was shortly after that, once they had gotten out, that the roof collapsed. Know your structures, know what you have, where your firewalls are, and the construction of the buildings. The attic of that apartment above The Ideal went all the way across. That fire could have gone the whole way.”
In the end, however, all the chiefs interviewed had nothing but praise for how well everyone did.
“It reminds me a little bit of the Emporium Hardware store fire years ago,” Mr. White said. “You don’t too often — thankfully, thank God — see a fire that really gets involved like that fire ended up being. To be able to contain it like that was pretty remarkable.”
“I think the chief did a great job, along with all the manpower,” Mr. Wines added. “They really did make a great stop. I know quite a bit was lost, but it could have been a lot worse, especially in those conditions.”
Mr. Gardella, whose shoulders the entirety of that day fell upon, added some final thoughts.
“Now that I look back on it, I think about the chiefs, like Kevin O’Brien Sr. and Bob Bori Sr., who were involved with the Easter fire, and that they were part of the command at that fire, and here they were now, fighting this fire,” he said. “Kevin went in the building with his son Kevin Jr., and was actually on a hose line fighting the fire with an attempt at an interior attack, and Bob was also very involved, covered in ice and snow. And also Mike McAree, who was with me in the back, he was giving me advice early on. So now that I look back and think about that, I was glad I had that experience with me there, absolutely, one hundred percent.
“I’m not glad of what happened, not at all, but it was a day I’ll never forget,” Mr. Gardella added. “I can’t say I’m glad I had the experience, but I was glad for the guys — the firefighters in Sag Harbor, East Hampton, Bridgehampton, North Sea and Southampton — they really did a great job. It’s a credit to them.”