It was just past 1pm on a beautiful Summer Saturday when the smell of something burning mixed unmistakably with my lunchtime pizza. I chased the odor in my office for a moment, then noticed the gathered crowd on the boardwalk pointing their phone cameras at me.
Of course, they weren’t looking at me. They were watching the one foot tall orange flames shooting upwards from the roof, just a few feet south of my window view. The building’s beautiful cedar shakes were burning.
Thankfully, one person out of the gotta put this on my IG story crowd was gracious enough to enter the burning museum to let us know that we were, indeed, on fire. By the time the staff person was coming upstairs to share the news, I was dialing nine-one-one.
“Hi. This is William. I’m the boss at this cool little museum right in the middle of the Virginia Beach Boardwalk. We’ve been closed since March because of the global COVID-19 pandemic and have barely been hanging on financially. After waiting over three months, this is our very special, long anticipated, once only imagined, re-opening day. However, I’ve now asked our few guests and staff to exit the building because our cedar shake roof is burning. Actually, it’s only one visitor, and he just came in to tell us about the flames spreading across the 117 year old historic building. We would all really appreciate if you could send us a firetruck. Maybe some firefighters too? Thanks.”
I admit that’s not what I said to the emergency operator, but I wish I had.
The weight of the fire extinguisher didn’t surprise me, for I had just held it in my hand two days before. The museum’s annual fire-extinguisher inspection took place that Thursday morning, And since annual inspections usually happen together, only the day before, on Friday, City workers had inspected and approved all of our fire alarms.
In aggravated irony, I opened my office window hoping to end the drama. My first impression was of how lovely it smelled, the burning cedar. Folks pay good money for cedar planks to use for cooking out at home. And for good reason. With the fire pretty close to my window, I could also feel the heat.
The first blast of powder seemed to end it all. I gave it a few more blasts, going back and forth across the entire roof section.The flame retardant rapidly replaced the inviting camp fire smell with a weird choking chemical oder.
The scene two stories below was surreal. A line of people stood along the fence line, all recording with their phones. I didn’t see faces. I only saw bodies, and phones where heads should have been. A couple of people had ventured onto the museum’s front yard to get a better shot. I called out and asked everyone to clear the area for safety. A young guy immediately began yelling “Fuck You” to me as he was backing away.
I’m half hanging out the second story window, with a fire extinguisher, trying to put the fire out, and a guy on the yard below is yelling obscenities at me. I’ll file that under you can’t make this stuff up.
As the fire goes out, immediate disinterest spreads and folks start walking away, now looking down at their phones figuring out what flame video will become their social media post.
And then the roof starts burning again. Embers underneath the shakes flame back up with fresh wind as fuel. At this point, a lifeguard had joined me in my office with a second fire extinguisher. As he emptied the contents, a big red truck slowly pulled up out front. The fire engine and crew attracted a whole new crowd out front as the show moved into an unmistakable second act.
I’m more than relieved to see the City of Virginia Beach Engine Company 11 arrive. Small hot spots continued to pop up, and I could see smoke coming from the roof’s leading edge, along the porch overhang. It was clear our little fire extinguishers were only slowing the fire’s relentless progress.
The Fire Crew seemed pleased. In good spirits.
I couldn’t help noticing they were glad this wasn’t a false alarm. It was a real fire. A genuine emergency This historic treasure is burning and they got to share their resources and expertise for a few precious minutes to keep it safe. It takes them only a few minutes to accomplish this. I was impressed with their size, confidence, and calm.
The Fire Chief explained our making acquaintance on this sunlit Saturday was because of a smoker. I found it interesting that he didn’t blame the cigarette. He didn’t see the cigarette first. Most accounts you read will tell the story of how fires begin with a lit cigarette. Chief saw the person first and explained it as such.
We both theorize the smoker was on a balcony at the adjacent high rise hotel. Perhaps he or she flicked the still lit smoke off the balcony, expecting it to fall to the grassy front below. The south east wind took the cig onto museum’s sprawling cedar roof.
We had been open for three hours.
Since no one came in during that time, we learned that summer visitation may not be coming as imagined.
And I learned that the majority of folks watching from the boardwalk saw the burning historic icon as merely another social media post. In fact, shortly after the fire was out, one of the lifeguard supervisors came onto the yard telling me the guard that came in to help was also a fire-fighter. He didn’t ask if we were okay, his first and only question was if I had taken pictures of their guard that could be posted on their social media.
And I learned the front desk staff was hesitant to believe that chap coming in the front door to tell them about the fire. The person running the shop previously worked at another oceanfront attraction, a boat. She revealed that folks often came into their ticket office to tell them the boat was sinking, or floating away, and even, that the vessel was on fire. She and her co-workers heard this so many times, she was numbed to the man’s initial warning. The desk staff walked outside to see if he was telling us the truth.
I sent an information email to the museum’s Board of Directors to be certain that everyone was informed, vs the misinformation that would likely spread through the grapevine. One response only contained a sad face and fire emoji.
And that’s some of the stuff that happened on our re-opening day.