Only rubble remains of the bayfront homes destroyed early Monday morning in the 4600 block of Ocean View Ave. in Virginia Beach’s Chesapeake Beach. An eighth home across the street was severely damaged. MORT FRYMAN/VIRGINIAN-PILOT.
Macromedia slide show at http://home.hamptonroads.com/slidesh...show=beachfire
By JASON SKOG, SUSAN E. WHITE AND DANIELLE ROACH, The Virginian-Pilot
© December 9, 2003
VIRGINIA BEACH — The air was icy when Dylan Savage ran out of her house barefoot, wearing a tank top and shorts.
She didn’t feel the cold or the cuts on her feet as she ran as fast as she could, clutching her baby blanket to her chest, the heat of the fire at her back.
She was still holding the blanket, its silk edges somehow unfrayed, as she watched her Chesapeake Beach house slowly crumble in the flames. She watched quietly with her family from a house across the street as embers fell from the sky.
“I tried to look away, I’d even get up and walk around, but I’d always turn around to see it,” said the 15-year old. “I watched the flames start on the side where my room was and slowly spread. It was like I had to see it, I had to know what was happening.”
Savage’s home was one of seven bayfront homes destroyed by a windblown firestorm early Monday morning in the 4600 block of Ocean View Ave. in Chesapeake Beach. Most were two-unit townhomes.
An eighth home across the street was severely damaged.
Fire officials called it the most destructive residential fire in Virginia Beach in 30 years.
No one was killed or seriously hurt. Four firefighters were treated for minor injuries, and two other people were treated for smoke inhalation and minor cuts.
At least 80 firefighters and rescue personnel from various departments responded to the three-alarm blaze, which occurred about 12:30 a.m. along a strip of beach just east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
The homes, which burned out of control for three hours, were within a block of the bridge, but strong winds from the northwest kept smoke and flames away, allowing traffic there to flow normally during the fire, said Battalion Chief Mike Wade.
The cause of the fire and where it started remain under investigation, though that may never be known, Wade said.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “We’re going to rely on all the witnesses we can find. There’s nothing there but some ash and not very much at that.”
Damage, he estimated, is in the millions of dollars. According to city real-estate records, the total assessed value of the properties destroyed or damaged is more than $3.4 million, with most of that value in the land itself, not the homes.
Some residents who lived in the destroyed homes planned to stay with friends and relatives, said Jerry Hyatt, a Red Cross volunteer. At least one family received vouchers for a hotel, food and clothing.
Three others declined assistance, Hyatt said.
Investigators are still piecing together how many residents lived in which homes and in which units. “We’re having a hard time figuring out what was there based on what we’re being told compared to what we’re finding in the tax records,” Wade added.
Many neighbors described hearing thunderous booms and seeing a sky of fire. Winds, gusting to about 30 mph, whipped throughout the night, blowing flaming ash and cinders blocks away.
One wind-blown ember may have touched off a fire that destroyed the top floor of Andreas Kerwel’s townhouse.
“I just took a coat and ran away,” Kerwel said as he watched fire crews put out the last smoldering remains. “We’re alive. We’re lucky.”
Some residents grabbed garden hoses and sprayed their homes or doused small grass fires touched off by drifting sparks.
“There was so much flying at one point, it looked like hundreds of fireflies just swarming over,” said Michael LoCash, who lives in a condominium behind the destroyed homes.
As the fire raged, neighbors were ordered to evacuate. Many waited for news up the road at Chick’s Beach Cafe, which was set up as a temporary shelter.
Laura Stalls, the cafe’s owner, poured coffee and did her best to calm nerves. “This is just a very local place,” she said. “Everybody is just really close around here.”
Still, Stalls said she was astounded by how fast the fire devoured the bayfront homes. “The ash was so heavy, it looked like it was snowing for three or four hours,” she said.
Neighbors said some of the homeowners had just completed repairs after damage by Hurricane Isabel in September.
During the hurricane, seas of 20 to 30 feet heaved onto the shore. But that scene paled compared to the 30-foot-high wall of fire that Angelia Woods watched engulf her neighbors’ property.
“This was the biggest bonfire I’ve ever seen in Chick’s Beach,” Woods said. “I always figured a hurricane would take out these homes, not a fire.”
For six homes, the fire’s destruction was swift, widespread and complete. The two- and three-story structures were reduced to waist-high piles of rubble. Many charred chunks were smaller than pieces of charcoal – little of it recognizable, none of it salvageable.
By late afternoon, the skeletal structure of only one of the bayfront homes remained standing. Firefighters carried a few items out of the home: a washer and dryer, a table and chairs and an orange plastic beach bucket.
The burned-out shells of five vehicles lent an eerie, war-torn look to the smoldering landscape. Alloy wheels from a convertible sports car melted into a silver puddle under the fender.
A “For Sale” sign was still visible in the windshield of a blackened Mercedes.
Even the waterfront bulkhead, a wooden structure built between the homes and the Bay, caught fire.
Electrical service was cut to a two-block area after utility poles caught fire and began toppling. Power was restored by early evening. Gas service also was cut, and a large flame flickered atop a tall pipe as crews burned off the remaining gas left in a propane tank.
Wade said two homes were burning “from the first floor to the roof” when the first firefighters arrived. The fire easily jumped from house to house because of the wind and because the homes, built in the 1970s, were so close to each other.
“Anytime you have wood-frame structures close together, you can have problems,” Wade said.
As the battle wore on, howling winds fueled the fire, and crews “drew a line in the sand,” Wade said. “Once those buildings got out of hand, our goal was to protect the structures across the street,” he said.
As a result, just one home on the other side of Ocean View Avenue was damaged.
Firefighters attacked the blaze from all sides, including from the beach, where crews stretched hoses across the sand and took aim. “Luckily it was low tide,” Wade said. “Had it been high tide, we couldn’t have had anybody on that side.”
Crews also pumped water from Pleasure House Lake to fight the fire.
Firefighters from 13 engine companies and four ladder companies tried desperately to save the homes, but were forced back by heat and wind. At one point, the fire’s heat could be felt from more than 150 feet away, Wade said.
Firefighters from neighboring Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake helped staff empty fire stations in Virginia Beach, while city firefighters battled the blaze.
For Dylan Savage, a junior at Cox High School, the sea-foam green baby blanket is all that’s left from her old bedroom.
She left behind dozens of pictures, a signed set list from her favorite band, Something Corporate, and a pink plaid skirt that her friends talked her into buying last week, but that she never got a chance to wear.
Those things, she knows, she can eventually replace, but there is one thing she can’t.
As Dylan and her parents ran to safety – her mom falling along the way – they were forced to leave behind Archie, Dylan’s dog given to her on her 12th birthday.
“I have my family and my friends who have already helped so much, but I know there are things we’ll never replace and that’s hard,” she said. “We all left memories behind in our house, and now we just have to rebuild them.”