An expansive pile of burnt and broken wood, melted plastic and mangled metal is all that remains of the restaurant and music venue that for decades overlooked both the Atlantic Ocean and Moriches Bay from Cupsogue Beach County Park in West Hampton Dunes.
Despite an overnight effort by 17 fire departments that lasted more than 12 hours, the Beach Hut at Cupsogue Beach was destroyed in a large blaze that engulfed nearly the entire shack on Saturday night. The fire destroyed the concession stand, showers, seating, bathrooms and a first-aid station.
“The whole thing was in flames,” West Hampton Dunes resident Kim Brown said in a phone interview on Saturday night, while scores of firefighters battled the raging flames. “I can’t imagine there’s anything left. It was spreading to the pavilion part, too.”
The Suffolk County Police Arson Squad and the Suffolk County Fire Marshal are investigating and, as of earlier this week, still do not know what triggered the blaze that started shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday, Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke said while touring the charred remains on Monday afternoon.
“Because of the size, this is a very difficult scene to work through,” Chief Burke said.
Westhampton Beach Fire Chief John “Chip” Bancroft said a call was made at 8:03 p.m. by a Cupsogue Beach employee working the booth at the entrance to the beach parking lot. Westhampton Beach firefighters arrived on the scene by 8:17 p.m., with volunteers from Eastport and other neighboring districts close behind. Westhampton Beach 3rd Assistant Chief Billy Dalton ran the operation for the first three hours until Chief Bancroft arrived on scene and took command until the following morning.
Rain kept the shack closed on Saturday, so no one was present when the fire started, and no firefighters were injured while battling the flames, officials said. EMS personnel were on hand to evaluate those volunteers who ventured into the thick smoke.
Because the building was made primarily from heavy timber that can hold fire for a long time, it burned much like a campfire, Chief Bancroft explained. Whenever a gust of wind would come in off the ocean or from the bay, the flames would flare up and change directions, sometimes very quickly, he added.
“It’s a nightmare when you’re fighting it,” he said. “We came in from one side with the wind at our backs, then it would change all of a sudden and be blowing right at us.”
Although the fire was primarily on the western side of the building, which was on stilts, the remaining part of the deck had to be torn down as a precaution, Chief Bancroft said, adding that volunteer crews turned the debris over again and again early Sunday morning to make sure the flames were fully extinguished while also putting out small fires that would pop up periodically.
To control the flames, the departments had to run nearly a half mile of hose along Dune Road, because no hydrants were in the vicinity.
After touring the site with other county officials on Monday afternoon, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said he is committed to reopening a concession stand in the park by next season and, ultimately, building a new permanent structure.
“This is one of the county’s jewels of the parks system,” Mr. Bellone said while standing amid the wreckage. “We are absolutely determined to rebuild one way or another. Whether it’s a permanent or temporary structure, we will be open again next summer.”
Mr. Bellone said the county primarily self-insured the property, but he is hopeful that some insurance money can be obtained to offset the cost of reconstruction. He did not have an estimate for how much it would cost the county to replace the facility, or how long the construction would take.
Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who represents the South Fork in Hauppauge, also was at the scene on Monday and commended the work of the volunteers who responded to the blaze. “At least no one was hurt,” he said. “Buildings we can put back together and replace, but human life we cannot.”
Several explosions occurred throughout the night as air and carbon dioxide tanks, as well as other combustibles, ignited inside the building, Mr. Dalton said. Fire crews, however, were able to prevent three propane tanks that were stored below the restaurant from exploding by keeping a steady flow of water on them and the surrounding area, Chief Bancroft said.
He estimated that each tank, which was at least half full, was capable of holding up to 1,000 gallons of propane. He added that had Mr. Dalton not kept the tanks thoroughly doused, a catastrophic explosion would likely have occurred. “If that thing blew, it would have been a hole right now,” he said. “No doubt.”
On Saturday evening, the bright blaze could be seen from several miles away, even across Moriches Bay and on the mainland in Remsenburg and East Moriches. Ms. Brown, who lives on Cove Lane off Dune Road, saw the flames from a window in her house about a mile east from the scene.
Ms. Brown, who worked at the Beach Hut in the summer of 2012, described it as an important part of the park, a place where people went to socialize even if they weren’t there to soak up some sun.
“It’s an integral part of Cupsogue Beach,” she said. “It’s been there as long as I [can remember].”
Fred Marsilio, the operator of the Cupsogue Beach Hut as well as two other county-owned beach huts—one at Smith Point in Shirley and the other at Meschutt Beach in Hampton Bays—said he was in Babylon when he got news of the fire on Saturday night, but rushed to the scene as fast as he could.
“I was totally shocked, very much sideways when I got the news,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
Mr. Marsilio has been operating the concession stand since 1999, and estimates that it has been in business since the 1960s.
It is not uncommon for the park to draw between 2,000 and 3,000 visitors on a busy summer day, Mr. Marsilio said, with most visiting the Beach Hut at some point. He did not know what the total attendance was for the park this past season, but both he and Mr. Schneiderman said there was a solid turnout despite cooler than average temperatures.
In addition to Westhampton Beach, the Eastport, Quogue, East Quogue, Center Moriches, Manorville, Riverhead, Hampton Bays, Flanders, Francis S. Gabreski Airport, Jamesport, Southampton Village, Yaphank, Mastic Beach, East Moriches, Mastic and Wading River fire departments all assisted in extinguishing the blaze. The East Moriches, Flanders-Northampton, Riverhead and Westhampton War Memorial ambulances all responded to the scene as well.