The Great West Island Fire: Saltairians to the Rescue by Carbery O’Shea JR.
First published here Nov. 29, 2008
After Labor Day in1956, most Saltaire families had gone back to the mainland for school, but a few village families remained including the O’Shea family. We had a later start at the Montclair schools ad our family extended the summer vacation as long as we could stay.
That September evening around 7 pm, shortly before sunset, a house on West Island erupted in flames. I was out on the sand in front of our bay front home. Suddenly the sky blackened quickly with smoke and flames shot high, soon engulfing the surrounding area of reeds and several smaller buildings.
A crowd of people gathered along the bay front, among them the O’Hare kids from up on Neptune. My feelings of helplessness and powerlessness gave way to masculine urges to do something. Several Saltaire teenagers felt similarly, including Mike Fitzgerald, who got the bright idea to commandeer Chuck Foster’s scow from Clam Cove which was the only boat available in the village. We rounded up some other men from around the village who met us at the dock, including Oliver Hull, who, as I recall, later became the Fire Chief.
This assemblage of men met with their shovels and each also had two buckets. By this time, it was dark and several other houses were engulfed in flames and the night sky was lit up. Our adrenaline levels were high. We were about to have our masculinity tested!
As we motored over to the dock to meet the fire crew, we were met at the dock by a formidable force. Our mothers were there banning all of us under 18 from fighting the fire. Our hopes of becoming Saltaire heroes faded into the night along with the hopes of being a real fire fighter. Those volunteers left without us disappointed teenagers to spend the night shoving sand and poring buckets of sand on the reed fires, It was later thought that the fire had been caused by a generator.
My dream to become a firefighter at age 15 with the opportunity to prove my virility and masculinity got squelched that night. But the memory of that fire that lit up the night sky remains emboldened in my mind this many years later,
The names of the men who fought that fire have faded over 50 years,, As far as I know, there has never been a record of that fire in the Fire Island News or mention of it in the Long Island daily papers telling of the heroic roles of the boys and men that year who rallied to the mutual assistance of West Islanders.
I found other fires on Fire Island to fight.: the Lionel Inn in Kismet and also at the Wiedhof house on Baby Prom in Saltaire. This was back in the days when all volunteers were able-bodied mean and boys without much training. All we had was a rusty old model A fire engine and some hose carts stored in fire sheds around the village, None of that equipment would have done any good in the West island fire.
Fire fighting at that time evidenced the community spirit, willingness to serve and the unselfishness of the Saltairians that night. It still represents one of Saltaire’s finest hours in my mind.
There have, I have heard, been other West Island fires, and lore around them included the Fire Islander ferried over men and buckets, shovels. That may been another time. Those were the days. May they live forever.
As visible from Saltaire, my sister Patsy remembers that the West Island fire burned for 3 days and nights, lighting up the sky in a chain of flames shooting up the whole length of the island. She herself, had no desire whatsoever to fight the fire., just to witness it and appreciate its beauty and the reflections of light on the waters of the Great South Bay.
A couple of years later, she sailed over there, anchored the CC and waded through the bottom muck to the island. She explored the charred remains of the burned houses, located fairly sparsely among the undergrowth of West Island as this island had never been very populated. She was surprised how “deep” the island was. That is to say, the dimension of the island not viewed from Saltaire. A couple of year after that she swam over to West Island with a friend accompanying her in a rowboat nearby, but they weren’t dressed for exploration, so they returned to Saltaire.
One of the burned houses on West Island was on the south side, midway down, facing Saltaire. The O’Sheas named it “the Alamo ” because of its white color and shape. Patsy watched it slowly fall into total ruins over these 50 years and now it’s just about invisible, The last visual remnant of that great fire from the perspective of an onlooker at Saltaire is gone. The sands of time take all memory of events away, not only from our minds, but from the land itself. Now nature has reclaimed the island almost totally and many birds make it their home.
Carbery O'Shea Jr
Ed. Note: That fire forever left vivid images in the memories of those who saw that fire that night. Now Carbery O'Shea has turned it into a classic for all to remember
Thanx, Carb. Your contribution of this story is a breath of fresh air that we need to keep this blog alive. We editors can not do it without you readers and contributors.
Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill
Or else my project fails,
Which was to please.
Prospero, --The Tempest