Picking Up Pieces After Worst Fire in 22 Years

Sag Harbor has hole at its heart; investigators have ruled out arson
Smoke billowed from the doors of the Sag Harbor Cinema early Friday morning as firefighters worked to control a blaze that damaged or destroyed six buildings. Michael Heller

The fire that ripped through a section of Sag Harbor’s Main Street on Friday morning — the worst on the South Fork in 22 years — destroyed two buildings, including the Sag Harbor Cinema, badly damaged others, devastated businesses, and displaced two people from second-story apartments.

Despite reports that cigarettes were blame for the blaze, fire investigators have yet to pinpoint a cause, though arson has been ruled out.

Too structurally unsound to be left standing, the front portion of the theater and a building to the north of it that housed Compass real estate were torn down between Friday night and Monday, leaving a gaping hole in the village business district. The loss of theater’s Art Deco facade, an iconic and beloved symbol of the village that bore its name in vivid neon letters, has been felt across the South Fork and beyond.

During a concert at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, the musician Billy Joel, a longtime village homeowner, bid farewell to “the old Sag Harbor Cinema” while playing Ennio Morricone’s “Cinema Paradiso” on the piano.

“There are not a lot of places when you think of a town, a city, and a community, where one image pops to mind,” said David Nugent, the artistic director of the Hamptons International Film Festival. “But, Sag Harbor, that’s just the first image that pops into so many people’s head — that cinema. That’s why I think it’s such a blow to so many,” he said. The sign, he added, “was such a beautiful emblem.”

People arriving in the village on the Hampton Jitney knew they had arrived when they spotted the sign, said Nada Barry, who owns the Wharf Shop on the opposite side of Main Street. Now, she said, “We don’t have a big sign saying ‘Welcome to Sag Harbor.’ ”

The roof on the front portion of the building, where the RJD Gallery and the theater’s lobby were located, collapsed during the fire. The cinema’s wood and stucco facade was separated from the rest of the structure, left precariously leaning over the sidewalk. Tom Preiato, the village building inspector, called for its demolition after consulting with county engineers.

The village contracted Keith Grimes Inc. to demolish that part of the building on Friday evening. The contractor was able to save the 11-year-old sign, a replica of the original and a village landmark, and it was taken to a storage facility in Bridgehampton. The theater’s owner, Gerry Mallow, had removed the original rusting sign in 2004, but its fans in the community mounted a successful fund-raising effort to replace it with the new one, which was installed in October 2005.

The theater portion of the 1930s building, with the large screen and seating, which was in the back side of the “L”-shaped structure, remains standing this week, having sustained only smoke damage.

The cinema has long been for sale, most recently for $14 million. Robby Stein, the village’s deputy mayor, said Friday that he was involved with a small group that was quietly working to purchase it and turn it into a cinema arts foundation. The group has architectural and structural reports on the building, and had hoped to enter into more serious negotiations with Mr. Mallow in the coming months. The hope now is that can be rebuilt, and village officials have pledged to help facilitate that.

Ms. Barry, who has been in business for over 40 years, has seen three major fires on Main Street during that time. She expects there will be an economic impact from the loss of the cinema. “People would make a trip for the unusual films and eat here,” she said.

Battling Fire . . . and Ice

Friday’s fire was first reported just after 6 a.m. by a Sag Harbor Village police officer who was stopping at Sagtown Coffee in the Shopping Cove before his shift began. Officer Randy Steyert had been up all night with his feverish son and was desperate for a cup of coffee, he said. As he pulled up to the Shopping Cove, he smelled something burning, then looked up and saw smoke billowing from behind the Main Street buildings. Village police surveillance cameras had caught the first signs of smoke just minutes before the officer arrived. 

He went up the stairs to the back of Shopping Cove by the coffee shop, and saw flames on the deck of a second-story apartment in the back of 84 Main Street. He called in the fire at 6:11 a.m.

After alerting the Sagtown employees, he ran back to Main Street, found the entrance to the apartment above the Compass real estate office, and banged on the apartment door to wake any occupants. Michael Lynch told the officer later that he almost ignored the banging, but then saw the smoke out his window.

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“There was enough time for him to get a jacket and shoes on and get out the door,” Officer Steyert said. He was the only one home and his apartment was not yet filled with smoke. The officer said it took about a minute for what had been a small fire to fully engulf the building. “Once the fire got going, Main Street was pitch black,” he said.

None of the other three apartments in the nearby buildings were occupied at the time, police said, and Mr. Lynch’s roommate was not home.

Sag Harbor firefighters arrived on scene within four minutes. Chief Thomas Gardella said he knew almost right away that it was going to be the worst fire of his career. He joined the department three years after the 1994 Easter Sunday fire on Main Street that destroyed Emporium Hardware, just a few doors north of the Shopping Cove.

He set up a command post in the municipal parking lot behind the buildings, and Bruce Schiavoni, the first assistant chief, took over operations at the front of the building. Standing alone behind the Brown Harris Stevens building, south of the cinema, just before day-break, Chief Gardella put his turnout gear on, climbed the back stairs of the Shopping Cove, and saw “a tremendous ball of fire.” The back of the Compass building, the lobby of the cinema, and the second floor of the Brown Harris Stevens building were already on fire.

The temperature was well below freezing and frigid winds were out of the northwest at 20 miles per hour, pushing the fire toward the apartments over Brown Harris Stevens and the Henry Lehr boutique south of that, he said.

“There was no way I was going to let that happen,” Chief Gardella said. His mission was to protect the buildings to the north and south. Ladder trucks from Sag Harbor, East Hampton, East Quogue, and Southampton were utilized at four corners of the buildings to douse the flames from above. All the chiefs agreed East Hampton was in one of the most difficult positions, the southeast corner, with the wind and smoke coming directly at them.

East Hampton Fire Chief Kenneth Wessberg said his guys “got beaten up.”

“That’s the heaviest smoke and fire conditions I’ve faced,” said Phil O’Connell, a 12-year firefighter who was one of the first men sent up in the bucket of East Hampton’s tower ladder truck.

Wearing their gear, helmets, and facemasks connected to a 6,000-pound tank of breathable air, Mr. O’Connell and Rory Knight fought back the flames for the first hour and a half. The smoke was so heavy at times, they could not see the roof of the buildings, the ground below, or even the ladder leading down to the truck.

At times, the wind blew the water right back at them. There were some “jerky movements,” which Mr. O’Connell said were “disconcerting” at 15 feet above a roofline, but he added that the company is so well trained that they were ready for it.

With wind-chill values between zero and 10 degrees, water quickly turned to ice. “Everybody’s gear was frozen. We had icicles off our helmets. The inside of our masks was icing up,” he said. At one point, his jacket sleeve got stuck to the side of the bucket. When it was time for another crew to rotate into the bucket, there was no way they could climb down the icy ladder, so the bucket was lowered to the ground.

Search teams were sent into the apartments, but found no one. Firefighters tried to make an interior push, but the chief said it was too hot. Thermal cameras pointed at the ceiling of the cinema showed the fire had reached 600 degrees.

“Wind-driven fire is crazy. It’s like a blowtorch effect,” he said. The Black Sunday fire in Manhattan in January 2005, when two firemen were killed and four were forced to jump out a window, was a wind-driven fire, the chief said. It led to mandatory bailout training for all firefighters.

“I had a plan, we implemented, and it was successful. To me, the fact that nobody got hurt — there were no injuries at all — says to me, it was a success,” Chief Gardella said. “Yes, it was my fire scene, but it also says that those chiefs that were on scene and overseeing their men did an excellent job.”

During one search, an East Hampton fireman got separated from his crew when conditions rapidly deteriorated in the building, Chief Gardella said. He kept his cool, though, found his way to a window and broke it; a ladder rescued him from the second story.

In total, six buildings sustained some sort of damage in the fire, from minor smoke damage to being completely gutted by the flames. According to Mr. Preiato, going from north to south, they include: 78 Main Street, on the south side of the Shopping Cove, which houses Sagtown Coffee, Collette Luxury Consignment, and Matta; a former bakery building at 84 Main Street, which housed Compass real estate on the first floor and the front of the second floor, as well as a duplex apartment that ran from the back of the second to the third floor; 90 Main Street, site of the cinema lobby and the RJD Gallery, and 96 Main Street with Brown Harris Stevens on the first floor and an apartment above. The last one “is pretty compromised,” Mr. Preiato said, and he has ordered an engineering report on it. The Henry Lehr building at 102 Main Street sustained some smoke damage and a hole in the roof above the two second-story apartments. Lastly, the offices of Banducci, Katz, and Ferraris and the Corner Closet at 108 Main Street had light smoke damage.

Sixteen fire and emergency medical service agencies from Montauk to Eastport, including the Flanders and Shelter Island departments, assisted in some way on Friday, and 150 emergency personnel responded, whether at the fire or to stand by at other firehouses to pick up unrelated calls. Local eateries like Grindstone Coffee and 7-Eleven took food and hot coffee to the emergency responders while they remained at the scene some six hours. Sag Harbor responded back a few hours later when a small fire reignited.

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As to the cause of the fire, “I strongly don’t feel it’s the cigarettes,” Tom Baker, the East Hampton Town fire marshal leading the investigation, said on Tuesday afternoon. While “a bunch of cigarettes” were found on the ground in the rear of the Compass realty building at 84 Main Street, he did not find evidence that they sparked the early-morning blaze. “They were dropped to the side of the steps, well below where the fire started,” Mr. Baker said.

The origin of the fire is listed as undetermined as of now, he said. What he does know for sure is that the fire started outside of the Compass building. During his investigation at the scene, he pulled apart the wooden steps leading to the real estate office and found what he described as charring. “There’s no way to get anything down in there. I couldn’t have flicked a cigarette down there,” he said. He found telephone and cable lines behind the area, but could not say for sure that the fire was electrical, even after consulting with an electrical underwriter on Tuesday.

PSEG-Long Island responded to the fire early on to turn the power off while firefighters battled the flames — something Mr. Baker said was a sound decision to keep firefighters safe. But because lines were cut, he could not explore whether there were any issues at the power source.

“Because the building is not there anymore, I can’t go back and investigate,” Mr. Baker said, referring to the demolition of the Compass building. Mr. Baker said he took photographs while he was on scene throughout the weekend, but that nothing substitutes for sifting through debris in person.

“I’m thinking it’s something catastrophic,” Mr. Baker said. An employee who opened up Sagtown Coffee, to the north of the Compass building, reported walking by the back of the building at 5:30 a.m. and not seeing or smelling anything.

Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin McGuire said on Tuesday morning that he had spoken directly with the Suffolk County arson investigators, who were called in to assist the East Hampton Town fire marshal’s office in investigating the fire because of the extent of the damage, and that they have confirmed that the cause remains undetermined. 

“It’s a very long, arduous process,” Chief McGuire said of fire investigations. There was a large amount of debris to sift through, compounded by roof collapses, and the thousands of gallons of water doused on the buildings to put out the flames.

“I’m sure everybody wants to know exactly what happened, but it’s going to take time,” Chief McGuire said.

Mr. Baker will continue his investigation as he works with insurance investigators in the coming weeks.

Firemen braved frigid temperatures and windy conditions as they fought the fire on Main Street in Sag Harbor on Friday morning. Michael Heller
The East Hampton Fire Department’s tower ladder truck was in one of the most challenging spots, with strong winds blowing water and smoke directly at firefighters. Michael Heller