By Stephen J. Kotz; photography by Michael Heller
More than 150 volunteers from 19 East End fire departments and ambulance companies braved freezing temperatures and strong winds to battle a fast moving fire early Friday that caused heavy damage to the Sag Harbor Cinema on Main Street. The fire gutted two adjoining buildings and caused serious damage to two other buildings flanking them on either side.
On Tuesday, Sag Harbor Police Chief Austin McGuire said the Suffolk County Police arson squad, which was called in to help investigate, had yet to fix a cause but had ruled out arson. He downplayed earlier reports that a carelessly discarded cigarette was to blame.
“One of the causes that is being investigated is cigarettes, but every option is being examined at this point,” he said, adding that it may take some time before the cause can be determined.
Despite the fire’s ferocity and swift advance, there were no injuries. The fire was reported by Sag Harbor Village police officer Randy Steyert, who had stopped at SagTown for a cup of coffee shortly after 6 a.m. before starting his shift. He evacuated the clerk of the coffee shop and Michael Lynch, a tenant of the apartment above Compass Real Estate in the Meridian building, who escaped in his pajamas.
Sag Harbor Fire Chief Tom Gardella said his department was called out for a reported fire on the second floor rear deck of an apartment behind the Meridian Building next to SagTown Coffee at 6:11 a.m., but by the time the first firefighters arrived on the scene, the fire, which was fanned by 20-mph winds out of the northwest, had already gotten out of control.
“Wind driven fire is the most deadly fire you can fight. It’s like a blowtorch effect,” said Chief Gardella.
He said he arrived at the scene just two minutes after the initial alarm and approached from the rear, along Meadow Street, while First Assistant Chief Bruce Schiavoni arrived on Main Street. “I never made it to the alleyway because I saw flames coming from the second story of the Brown, Harris, Stevens building. That second floor was already on fire,” Chief Gardella said. “I was immediately thinking ‘we have a problem, a major issue, here.’”
The chief requested additional help, and the East Hampton, Bridgehampton and North Sea Departments were soon at the scene, with others to follow over the next hour. In a matter of minutes, thick and acrid black smoke was rolling over Main Street and eastward across the village. Icy vapor rained back down on those manning the hoses as the 18-degree temperature caused the water to freeze in midair.
Other departments sending firefighters and apparatus were Montauk, Amagansett, Springs, Shelter Island, Southampton, Hampton Bays, East Quogue, Quogue, Eastport, Flanders, Riverhead, and the Air National Guard at Gabreski Airport.
The Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance, Southampton Village Ambulance, East Hampton Village Ambulance Association, and ambulances from other departments were on standby in the municipal parking lot.
Chief Gardella said there were five ladder trucks and 14 pumpers at the scene. He set up a command post in the Meadow Street parking lot and deployed two of those ladder trucks along Meadow Street and two on Main Street to attack the fire from above, while holding one in reserve.
“It was moving south — and fast,” the chief said. Rather than try to put out the buildings that were already ablaze, he said he made the decision to try to contain it. “I was focused on stopping it,” he said, “because Main Street is the lifeline of Sag Harbor.”
Firefighters climbed to the roof of the building occupied by Henry Lehr and cut holes in the roof, where they could spray in water and make sure the fire was not breaking through. The strategy worked, and the fire was contained within about an hour, the chief said, although it took until nearly noon for it to be put out completely.
Chief Gardella said firefighters also “made attacks inside” the theater “but it was just too intense. Shortly after they backed out the roof collapsed.”
The authorities cordoned off Main Street, between Bay and Union Streets, and Mayor Sandra Schroeder declared a state of emergency. Once the initial fire was put out by about noon, a handful of reporters were allowed access to a position across the street from the movie theater. Firefighters, their helmets and jackets encrusted with ice, milled about. Christmas trees and street trees encased in ice almost looked festive, but the scene behind them was one of devastation.
The fire re-ignited at the Cinema Friday afternoon, bringing Sag Harbor firefighters back to the scene to further douse the structure — water poured through the front of the building’s façade, and down the stairway in the Brown Harris Stevens building, where a door was ajar.
By Friday evening, demolition crews were on the scene to knock down the forlorn white façade of the movie theater with its beloved neon Sag Harbor sign. The façade, which listed slightly streetward after the lobby roof collapsed, was declared a hazard by Suffolk County structural engineers who had been called to the scene by County Executive Steve Bellone, who joined other officials at a meeting to discuss recovery efforts. The sign survived the wall’s slow, crumbling fall to the ground and was hauled off to storage.
Workers began to tear down the Meridian Building on Monday afternoon, and it appeared the brick shell of the Brown, Harris Stevens Real Estate building would likely have to be torn down as well.
The theater’s auditorium survived, but suffered heavy water and smoke damage. The RJD Gallery, which occupied a space next to the theater was destroyed. The building housing SagTown and two clothing stores — Collette, a consignment shop, and Matta — suffered fire and smoke damage. The building housing the Henry Lehr clothing store — where firefighters stopped the fire’s advance — also suffered heavy water and smoke damage. There appeared to be smoke damage to the Corner Closet and Banducci, Katz & Ferraris, LLP, a CPA firm, immediately to the south.