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Residents, investigators return to scene of devastating Cherry Grove fire

Firefighters survey the damage after a fire in

Firefighters survey the damage after a fire in the Cherry Grove community of Fire Island on Friday, March 27, 2015. The famed Grove Hotel, an apartment complex and two unoccupied homes were destroyed, and the Ice Palace bar and three other homes were damaged in the early morning fire, fire officials said. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Don Verteramo Jr. walked carefully among the charred pilings that once held up the Kokomo in Cherry Grove, atop sand mixed with the ashes of what was once his studio summer share.

Verteramo was among several residents in the Fire Island hamlet early Saturday who searched for remnants of personal belongings pulverized by flames that destroyed or damaged seven properties.

He failed to find his grandfather's dog tags from World War II, only discovering the burned oval frame of a former badminton racket.

"Everything is just gone," Verteramo said, planting a shovel in the ground, refusing to stop searching. "It's just sad; really just awful."

Next door was the Anima Retreat at the Beach, a spiritual center owned by Patricia Lagattuta. She went to the site with her father, John J. Lagattuta, to survey the damage.

"I was prepared for this by the news coverage, but I still thought I'd be able to find something I could save," she said. "But I'm grateful that no one was seriously harmed. The firefighters risked their lives to save Cherry Grove."

Cherry Grove firefighters gathered early Saturday to begin a cleanup, said Fire Chief Steven Williams. Water hoses, left in place in case of flare-ups, snaked along the wooden boardwalks to the fire scene.

While electricity and water are typically shut off in local buildings for the winter -- which Williams said might explain why smoke detectors and fire alarms did not go off -- investigators have determined electricity was turned on in Holly House, where the fire began.

Authorities are working to see if that played a role in sparking the fire, Walter Dunn, senior fire marshal with Brookhaven Town, said yesterday.

"There was some work being done for four days before, some painting, a roof patch, some light plumbing," Dunn said of the six-unit apartment house. "The first thing is to determine the time frame between when work was completed and when the fire started."

The fire took about five hours to control, Williams said, adding that three firefighters suffered minor injuries.

The Suffolk County arson squad is investigating with the town fire marshal, Dunn said, and no known cause has been established.

Firefighter Robert Lerch, who lives about a block from the scene, awoke shortly before 1:30 a.m. and saw the fire brewing, Williams said. Lerch called 911, and Suffolk County Fire Rescue and Emergency Services issued an alarm to which 23 Long Island fire departments, with more than 100 firefighters and six EMS units, responded, Williams said.

Dunn said interviews with building owners and others still need to be conducted.

The Grove Hotel, a two-story building with 64 rooms that have housed famous guests such as Lady Gaga and Truman Capote, was rebuilt once before following a major fire in 1956.

Williams said he hopes owners rebuild but recognized it will be a long process.

"The demolition for a big loss like the hotel is particularly problematic in Cherry Grove where there are no roads; it's not easy to get big equipment in here. So just removing debris will be a long and expensive process."

"Cherry Grove is a very special place for the people that come here," he said. "Many people have come here for summers, perhaps for 10, 15, 20, 30 years. . . . so it is an emotional time, there's no question."

Lagattuta couldn't say if she would rebuild.

"This place is everything to me. It was my job, but it was my home," she said, poking an umbrella through the ashes. "It's on this magnificent island. For me, it was paradise."

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