Historic Long Island town gutted by fire

A fire ripped through the historic Main Street in Sag Harbor, New York.

CBS New York

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- An early-morning fire destroyed half a dozen businesses on Main Street in the heart of historic town of Sag Harbor on Long Island on Friday, CBS New York reports

Gusty winds made it difficult to fight the fire, and the result was the loss of a beloved cinematic venue.

Flames broke out at about 6 a.m. Friday morning at the Sag Town Coffee Shop. According to the fire chief, the blaze appears to have started on an upstairs floor and then spread.

“I saw flames shooting up from where the coffee shop is, and the coffee shop is like the heartbeat of town,” said gallery owner Laura Grenning.

The fire went on to burn out of control, as flames and smoke were fueled by a stiff wind of neary 30 mph and quickly moved north. The blaze went on to consume half a dozen businesses in the heart of quaint and historic waterfront Sag Harbor.

“Wind-driven fire is the most deadly fire that you can fight,” said Sag Harbor Fire Chief Thomas Gardella. “It’s like a blow torch effect – that fact that it’s being fed rapidly. It spreads very quickly.”

Sag Harbor, located north of the Hamptons on Long Island, was once whaling town and was mentioned in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” The village also famously served as a writer’s colony, and historically served as an beach enclave for African-Americans.  

The iconic century-old Sag Harbor Cinema was gutted by the fire. Its period neon sign was spared, but the building behind it collapsed.

The remains of the Sag Harbor Cinema were torn down Friday night. Officials said the other damaged buildings will also likely have to be bulldozed.  

“Everything can be rebuilt. Nobody knows if the movie theater can be rebuilt,” said Sag Harbor photographer Tanya Malott.

Five other storefronts, including an art gallery, were destroyed. Residents living above those storefronts were evacuated.

For store owner Vicky Nolan, the scene was difficult to look at.

“It’s very painful, because you know that all of these people put their heart and soul in their businesses,” Nolan told WCBS 880’s Mike Xirinachs. “This is a very small town.”

Also damaged in the fire was the local Brown Harris Stevens real estate office.

“We are saddened by the fire on Main Street in Sag Harbor; our thoughts and prayers go out to our neighbors, the entire community and those who love the movie theater. Although our office has been severely damaged, our agents and staff are safe,” a Brown Harris Stevens representative said in a statement. “Our agents will continue to service their clients with the support of our many offices in the Hamptons. We have already identified a new space in Sag Harbor and we will remain an involved member of this community as it rebuilds.”

Nineteen fire departments battled the flames for hours in brutal cold. Firehose water immediately turned to ice.

“Absolutely miserable,” Sag Harbor Fire Dept. Chief Bruce Schiavoni said. “I mean, everything’s freezing up. You can see the trucks, all of the ice on them. We got here, it wasn’t even light out yet.”

As firefighters returned to douse flare-ups, Sag Harbor villagers watched with tears.

“I’m not positive how it started. But I heard the wind was too much to contain it, so it just kept spreading down,” resident Kevin Geddie said. “I’m almost in tears right now – heartbroken, I mean, this is home — my grandparents were born and raised here. There’s no words to explain what’s happened here today.”

Merchants and residents brought water and food to the fearless volunteers to express gratitude. Despite their beloved Main Street being left charred, there was relief that no one was hurt.

“They’re very cold and they’re working very hard, and it’s the holiday, so it’s a sad thing,” said Sag Harbor merchant Jeremey Dunham.

“They are amazing,” another resident said. “We should stop every single one of them and thank them.”

Twenty years ago, another massive fire consumed the center of Sag Harbor when the hardware store, filled with combustibles, went up in flames. This time, the wind blew away from the hardware store, preventing the fire from being even worse.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.