When the Atlantic Steamer Fire Company arrived on the scene at 11:45 p.m. on Wednesday night, Aug. 12, this is what the fire looked like at the back of the house. Two firemen were hurt in the blaze: an Atlantic Steamer fire fighter injured his knee when he fell off a wall and Bayville Fireman Peter Brown received burns to his back when debris fell down his coat.
Photo by 1st Assistant Chief Chris Mercadante.
Saturday, Aug. 15, only the shell of the house was left standing as the Fire Marshal began to sift through the interior to determine the cause of the fire.
Photo by GD.
Had it been complete, the Richard and Ava Cohen house on Centre Island would have been something grand in the Newport, Rhode Island manner, a reminder of the Gatsby tradition here on the north shore. That is how a local resident explained the plans for the mansion that burned down Wednesday night, Aug. 12, 1998.
A neighbor smelled smoke and called the Centre Island police. The call came in at 11:20 and Centre Island Police Officer John Schmidt reported it immediately to the Bayville Fire Department and then went to the house with a fire extinguisher and tried to open the front door. It was locked. There were no flames. He backed away from the house, and just then, the second floor windows blew out. "If he had opened the door he would have probably been killed," said Centre Island Mayor John Williams. "The Bayville Fire Department was there in five minutes. They had just finished putting out a fire in Bayville and were putting away their equipment when they got the call. They were all there, there was no waiting for the firefighters to get to the fire house.
"But it didn't do any good. The fire was out of control when they got there.
Bayville Chief Tim Placilla and his men saw the fire and called the Atlantic Steamer Fire Company to come to the scene. The companies cooperate, each has a tanker car and are on automatic mutual aid in case of a fire on Centre Island or Cove Neck. There are two hydrants in Centre Island and none in Cove Neck.
The Atlantic Steamer company sent Ladder 551 and Tanker 5511 to the fire, said Atlantic Steamer Chief Frank Ozol.
There were 14 fire departments in all, said Atlantic Steamer 1st Assistant Chief Chris Mercadante. Besides Bayville and the Atlantic Steamer companies, attending the list included: two more companies used to fighting fires at large estates -Eaton's Neck with their tank truck and Huntington, which covers Lloyd Harbor, with theirs. Those fighting the 27 hour blaze included: Jericho; East Norwich; Syosset; Roslyn Rescue;Oyster Bay Fire Company No. 1; Locust Valley sent a ladder truck and an engine; Glen Cove sent an engine; also attending were Sea Cliff Ambulance; Roslyn Highlands were on standby at the Bayville Fire House; the Oyster Bay Fire Ambulance; Glen Wood; Manhasset Lakeville sent a gasoline tanker since some of the vehicles were running out of fuel; the Town of Oyster Bay sent a fuel truck too.
Mayor John Williams said the village is considering having all new homes built with sprinklers and alarm systems. "In the last 10 to 12 years we have had four major fires and three were in unoccupied houses under construction. One of them, the old Eric Perkins house, now owned by Jim Scoropsky, had an alarm system and that house was saved. They had a grease fire in the kitchen and it spread up the flue to the attic. The firemen were able to save most of the house," he said.
"The old Kennedy house was being renovated and its fire was blamed on defective wiring. The Kaiser house was unoccupied and up for sale with the family moving out when their fire occurred.
"What is ironic," said Mr. Williams, "Is that the Cohens were planning to put in an alarm and sprinkler system but didn't plan to do it until the house was finished."
There is another large house being built presently on Centre Island, and they are putting in their alarm and sprinkler system now, before it is finished. He was told this by Mrs. Cohen. They are friends of hers. "She said, 'I wish we had done what they did'," he related. "They were both devastated. They were planning to move in, in a month or so.
"The firemen told me a fire doubles every 60 seconds," he said, "So unless it's caught early, no matter how much water is used it is going to be impossible to put it out."
Mr. Williams said the most dramatic photos of the fire were the overhead helicopter shots. "It was like a scene from the Blitz in London with the shell of the building and the flames shooting out. It was built around a central atrium. It acted like a chimney. The floors were wooden, so everything just collapsed into the basement.
"There was a tremendous amount of wood in the building. There was a great deal of paneling including a paneled library with a wooden balcony.
"There was a ceiling mural that had been painted in Paris and some French artisans installed it. I don't know which ceiling it was on. They had been in the building late the night of the fire."
They drew water from a pond and from a neighbor's pool with portable pumps. "The fire was out of control, no matter how much water there was," said Mr. Williams.
Chief Frank Ozol said the tankers set up in a shuttle system to pump the water. It was hard for the Atlantic Steamer Company to get close to the fire. There was a pile of dirt about three feet by 10 feet that had to be moved to get their ladder close enough to the house.
There was no immediate neighbor in danger from the fire. They only had to be concerned that no embers drifted west to the neighbor's house below," said 1st Assistant Chief Chris Mercadante.
Mr. Williams described the scene with two aerial ladders spraying water down into the fire.
"It was going to be patterned like a French Chateau, with carvings and decorative paneling. They were in the midst of putting in a lot of plantings that would help screen the size of the house," said Mayor Williams.
"Originally it was just cinder block, so it did look awfully ugly, but as it was finished with limestone, it took shape and a lot of the objections of the neighbors died down," he said.
People were amazed to see the size of the house as it went up and thought it was a hotel, a business or apartments.
It followed the existing building codes of the village but showed the board that the rules needed changing. Now the new ordinance calls for 37 feet for a peaked roof and 25 feet for a flat roof. Before the ordinance stated the minimum size house that could be put up. The mansion was three stories high and about 37 or 38 feet, but with a flat roof, and standing on the top of a hill made a difference.
There was talk of the owner taking down trees to build the house. Mr. Williams said he did clear the land, but it was scrub oak. He saved a lot of the trees.
The house is in an area called Rocky Point. "It is just about impossible to get to by boat," said the mayor. They were not able to use their new fire boat to fight the blaze. The rocks march out into the sound. Some people call the rock formation the Elephant Walk.
The Centre Island Board of Trustees have been considering the issue of water for the village. "About six or seven months ago, the trustees and I started looking into putting hydrants on the main road, on Centre Island Road and Seawanhaka Road. We have to get the water from Bayville. The previous administration said they couldn't provide it, but Mayor Seigel said they could.
"It would cost $1.4 million to bring in water just to those two roads and not to the private roads and the $1.4 million is just the construction cost. On top of that is the bond issuing, the attorney fees, the underwriters and the interest.
"But lack of water was not the culprit in the fire. They must have poured a tremendous amount into the fire. When I drove up the water was gushing out of the building down the road. The fire flared up a couple of times, so they left the hoses available. There was smoldering debris in the basement.
On Saturday, they were using a crane to bring up parts of the debris. They had dogs to sniff out if there are any accelerants in the debris that might have been used to start the fire. The Fire Marshal's office said it will be about a month before the official report would come out.
"It was a grand house. A mansion in every sense of the word," said Mr. Williams. "With the plantings in the summer it was pretty much hidden. They had also done a lot of planting on the slope in front of the house.
"I was hoping I would be invited to the house warming," said Mr. Williams. "As mayor I wanted to make peace between them and the neighbors, which is the way it had worked out."
On Thursday, Aug. 13, Centre Island Police Chief Dennis Weiner set up a spot for the press. The family didn't want anyone to enter the area. There was an area further away than the press, for sightseers. "We had so much publicity on the fire, we had sightseers coming to see the site, and this is a very private community." The house can be seen from the water.
Richard Cohen, of Cohen Fashion Optical, is a trustee of the Friends of Planting Fields Board. He has been on the board of the Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery for 10 years. "He is the most generous board member," said a local resident. "He is sweet and generous and an unassuming quiet, modest guy. He paid for landscaping and a fresh water well for the trout."
He loves trees and landscaping. His house near Planting Fields has hundreds of specimen trees. He was going to landscape his new home magnificently. "Imagine it with landscaping, ivy, trees, steps, balustrades, and reflecting pools. Maybe it will be again."
The comments were made to answer some of the negative remarks about the house.
Nearby Coe Hall Mansion was also a victim of fire, highlighting the special needs of these large homes. "The R.W. Coes were renovating their home when a fire broke out and destroyed the house. It was blamed on a workman using an acetylene torch in Mrs. Coe's bedroom," said Lorraine Gilligan, director of Coe Hall.
The Coes were in California when the fire broke out on February of 1918 in a house built in 1906. They found the plumbing and the heating unsatisfactory and were trying to make improvements to the house. No one was injured in the fire. The servants were able to retrieve valuables from the fire.
"When the Coes designed a new house, they decided to build a more fireproof building than the original Queen Anne house. It was made of Lamay bricks, that were baked and brittle. They were highly flammable. The present mansion of limestone is more fire resistant and has steel and concrete supports in the design, so if there was a fire, it wouldn't totally decimate the house," she said.
"It's amazing that people are willing to take the chance that it won't happen to them, although when you take out a fire insurance policy, they ask where the nearest fire hydrant is located. In some ways nothing has changed," said Ms. Gilligan.
"We are trying to get a fire suppression system but the water pressure isn't sufficient. That has to be brought up to code before the plan is decided on. So it's a problem for all of these big houses on the north shore, especially those on rises without relay pumps to get the water to where it should be." Ms. Gilligan said, "It's really terrible, what happened to them, the Cohens. I felt badly for them."