May 19, 2009 — For about six hours, firefighters used just about every tool in their arsenal to tame the blaze that engulfed Mountain Top late Monday night.
A decision had to be made. As the flames, fanned by the high winds, began to climb higher and water began to run out, Fire Chief Glenn Francis questioned whether his crews should continue working to extinguish the fire, or protect homes and residents in the immediate area.
Luckily, he was able to accomplish both, helped by personnel from several government agencies ranging from Public Works to WAPA and preventing any injuries or damage to outside buildings.
But the fire burned until well into the early morning hours, keeping everyone on the alert until about 3 a.m. Tuesday and leaving the popular tourist attraction in charred ruins. Firefighters had the blaze under control by 1:30 a.m., but were still out extinguishing hot spots an hour later, Francis said at a press briefing Tuesday afternoon.
"When I arrived there and realized how high the flames were, that we were almost out of water — I saw the thing exploding, and all I could think about what was if this was going to hurt my guys," he added. "We had to put safety first, because if the guys aren't safe, then the community's not safe."
Fire officials were still at the scene when the press conference was called around 2 p.m. Tuesday. At that point, an investigation into what caused the fire was being conducted, so few details could be released. It was said, however, that an initial call into 911 was made around 8:50 p.m. Monday by the Alert-1 security company reporting that a burglar and fire alarm had gone off.
Burglar alarms are triggered by movement, and this one could have been set off by something as simple as falling debris, officials said.
"There was no sprinkler system in place that could have helped us," Francis said. "That kind of fire protection system would have set off an alarm that would have notified us earlier, so we could have gotten up there and contained it before it got that far."
A team from Echo Company in Estate Dorothea was the first to respond to 911 call. After being confronted by flames when they entered through a door on the western end of the building, another call was put out for all Fire Services units to come out and help.
In total, more that 20 active duty firefighters and 36 off-duty firefighters — from all four companies on St. Thomas, along with one firefighter from St. John and a few from St. Croix that were on island for training — showed up to assist. About 12 trucks were dispatched along with a Fire Services vehicle from the 1970s that had recently taken up residence in the West End Cemetery.
But Mountain Top's location was problematic — putting crews on uneven terrain, with no access to water sources so they could refill once their water supply dwindled.
Fire trucks were stationed in the parking lot, while the building burned below, shooting flames up the hillside and into the firefighters' faces, Francis said. Crews also had to saw through the metal roof in an effort to get to the heart of the blaze. Meanwhile, many of the buildings were close together, cutting off direct access.
"We had to approach from the west, where there's a driveway and a round-about," he explained. "But the winds were high, and there was a concern about a 2,000 gallon propane cylinder on the property, which might explode." Steps were taken to protect two nearby houses, and firefighters were dispatched to others throughout the area as residents began to call in, worried that their homes would catch on fire.
None of the homes were evacuated or destroyed, Francis said. But at one point, firefighters were called out of the evening, and the governor — who also came out to the scene — was asked to leave for safety reasons, he added.
Once the water supply dwindled, three Fire Services tankers made about five trips downtown and back. Meanwhile, a call was put out for additional water haulers. Tankers from Public Works, Waste Management and Housing, Parks and Recreation were mobilized, bringing water up from V.I. Water and Power Authority standpipes downtown. A bucket truck supplied by WAPA also helped get firefighters up to spray the balcony, said Darryl George, special assistant to the Fire Services Director.
Six private water companies also trucked in water, guided through the streets by V.I. Police Department units. Other government agencies — including V.I. Port Authority and the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency and emergency medical services technicians — also responded. Monday's press conference, George said, also gave Fire Services a chance to thank all those who came out for their help, George said. Community members were also on hand to provide crews battling the fire with food and drinks, while a number of local businesses — many of whom asked to remain anonymous — also donated whatever resources they could, officials added.
"There was a tremendous display of intergovernmental support," George said. "The community also came out in support, showing that when everybody's working together, we can overpower anything."
The Source will provide more details on the investigation once they become available.
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