Officials Still Investigating Cause Of Blaze That Leveled Sandpiper In Westhampton Beach


Southampton Town fire marshals are still investigating what caused a nearly-400-foot-long oceanside cooperative, called The Sandpiper, to burn to the ground last week.

The blaze in Westhampton Beach, which was first reported at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, April 15, quickly enveloped the entire 54-unit, two-story co-op, sending flames and black smoke into the air that could be seen from miles away. Fire leveled the 55-year-old building and destroyed nearby utility lines, knocking out electricity and internet service for hundreds of homes from the Westhampton Beach Village limit all the way west to the Moriches Inlet.

No injuries were reported, however.

Town Fire Marshal John Rankin, the lead investigator on the case, said he has narrowed down where he thinks the fire started, though he declined say where until his report is finalized. He also said there were contractors working in units at either end of the building, but that none was near the suspected starting point.

“Because of the wind and the configuration of the building, it got a real good foothold real quick and spread fast,” Mr. Rankin said Tuesday morning.

The wind was blowing north to south, which worked to the advantage of the roughly 150 volunteers who were battling the fire until 2 a.m. the following day, Westhampton Beach Fire Chief Ross Donneson said last Thursday morning after the fire was reduced to a smoldering pile of blackened rubble. He added that, had the wind been gusting east or west, the fire could have easily spread to neighboring buildings.

A crew of firefighters kept The Sandcastle, a condominium located about 50 feet east of The Sandpiper, doused with water. Even so, intense heat melted the other resort’s plastic siding, Chief Donneson said.

The initial call came in as both an automatic alarm and a brush fire, but Chief Donneson said it was clear to him—as it was to many other people on the north side of Moriches Bay—that it was a large structure fire, prompting him to immediately call for additional support.

Volunteers from the Westhampton Beach, Quogue, East Quogue, Eastport, Flanders, East Moriches and Riverhead fire departments, as well as the Westhampton Volunteer Ambulance Corps and the East Moriches Community Ambulance, were on the scene until 2 a.m. last Thursday, Chief Donneson said, as were Westhampton Beach Police, Southampton Town fire marshals and officials from the Suffolk County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services.

“Everybody did a great job,” Chief Donneson said. “We were rotating crews in throughout the night and everything went smoothly.”

Chief Donneson said the blaze was the largest structure fire in the village since the 1995 blaze that gutted the Yardarm condominium complex, which is also on Dune Road. The only other fire that rivaled it during the past two decades was last summer’s Beach Hut fire at Cupsogue Beach County Park, which, like the Sandpiper fire, could be seen from across the bay and took roughly a dozen hours to put out.

Volunteers doused the flames from the Sandpiper complex from Dune Road as well as from atop an adjacent dune.

The 54-unit building has large propane tanks on both its east and west ends, which Chief Donneson said were secured by firefighters who kept the area doused with water.

“We saved what we could, obviously, but a structure like that, when it’s that involved, all you can do is keep it contained and make sure everyone in the area is protected,” the chief said.

Smoke continued to come out of the Sandpiper’s remains well into the following day, causing some passersby to call 911 thinking the fire was starting up again, Chief Donneson said.

“There was never any flare-up, just a lot of smoke, and we had to go back for the fire marshals so they could check some stuff out,” he said. “It was pretty well put out.”

Westhampton Beach Village records show active permits for a handful of projects, including replacing vents and water lines and two kitchen renovations.

Westhampton Beach Police Chief Trevor Gonce said he entered the building shortly after the fire was reported and had to clear contractors out from the second floor. No one else was in the building at the time of the fire because it was closed for the off season to all residents other than the property manager, Rob Taber, who was living there year-round with his significant other.

Mr. Taber was not in the building when the fire started, and he could not be reached for comment this week.

Chief Gonce said that as he was addressing reporters and photographers on Dune Road last week, several overhead utility lines gave way, cutting off power and internet along the barrier island.

Kristina Pappas, a spokeswoman for PSEG Long Island, wrote in an email that power to 1,390 households went out at 5:12 p.m. last Wednesday. By 5:30 p.m. the same day, power had been restored to 534 of those households, while the remaining 856 were without power until 3:37 a.m. on last Thursday.

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