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Sag Harbor Cinema demolished — but sign saved — after fire

A crew removes the charred wreckage of the iconic Sag Harbor Cinema on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, the day after a wind-driven fire tore through the heart of Main Street. (Credit: David M. Schwartz)

Heavy construction equipment tore down the charred wreckage of the historic Sag Harbor Cinema on Saturday, leaving a scorched gap in the heart of the village’s Main Street a day after a raging fire destroyed or damaged five buildings.

Amid snow and rain, an excavator dropped rubble into dump trucks. Neighboring merchants hauled garbage bags of ruined inventory out of fire-damaged stores.

Onlookers across the street from the burned-out buildings huddled in doorways and under umbrellas, surveying the solemn scene and remembering the village landmark.

North Haven resident Barry Peek, 63, had walked by the 1930s theater “a thousand times before.”

Sag Harbor Cinema, he said, was “a historic, beautiful part of the town.”

“Hopefully they can rebuild it,” Peek said.

The theater was a throwback, where they didn’t show coming attractions and sold cans of soda, he said.

The facade of the iconic Art Deco-style movie house was torn down Friday night, hours after the fire, which started shortly after 6 a.m. Friday.

“This is going to be a shock to a lot of people. That facade was the label of Sag Harbor,” said Frank D’Angelo, owner of Emporium Hardware four doors down.

Cinema owner Gerald Mallow said it was too soon to talk about what’s next.

“I really have to absorb what has happened. I’m still dealing with the shock of this fire and how devastating it’s been to the theater and other businesses,” he said in a phone interview. “Main Street now looks like a bombed-out area. Hopefully it will be put back quickly.”

The theater, which had been listed for sale for $14 million, was not the only casualty.

The blaze, propelled by strong winds, started near the second-floor deck of the building directly north of the cinema and scorched a stretch of Main Street occupied by the theater, retail stores, offices, an art gallery and coffee shop, as well as a handful of apartments, officials said.

An alley acted like a “wind tunnel,” causing flames to spread rapidly, Sag Harbor Fire Chief Thomas Gardella said. Heavy winds “hid” the flames as firefighters, covered in ice in the 18-degree weather, tried to put it out, he said.

No one was hurt in the blaze.

“We would’ve had multiple fatalities if this happened at 2 p.m. possibly,” Gardella said.

Sag Harbor Police Chief Austin McGuire said Saturday the cause of the fire still is under investigation, but it’s “definitely noncriminal.”

Village building inspector Tom Preiato said the theater “was in imminent peril of collapse” so it had to be knocked down for safety reasons.

Residents had hoped to save the building, he said, but the decision to demolish it was made after consulting with an engineer sent by Suffolk County.

“People were trying to preserve it — it was there when I was a kid growing up — but safety always comes first,” Preiato said.

The building directly north of the cinema also will have to be removed, officials said.

At least the neon sign reading “Sag Harbor” in 4-foot-tall letters, though “dinged up,” was saved, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said.

The sign was taken to a Bridgehampton storage facility by preservationists to be restored.

Bellone said the county is prepared to help businesses recover.

“The focus now is on Main Street and getting business back to normal,” he said. The county’s economic development department, Industrial Development Agency and Department of Health were standing by to help.

A handful of neighboring business owners had their electricity turned back on Saturday afternoon.

“In the grand scheme, we’re fortunate,” said Tase McCulley, owner of Xanadu, a nearby clothing store. She said the tightknit community, where neighbors are volunteer firefighters, will help.

“It’ll take a community effort getting back on our feet,” she said.

Next door to where the cinema had stood, workers cleared out a consignment shop and coffee shop — carrying away a broken carved wooden horse, bags of coffee, soaked women’s coats, chairs and stools.

Shane Dyckman, owner of SagTown Coffee, still wore his firefighting turnout gear as he hauled out black garbage bags.

“I put my own building out,” the Sag Harbor Fire Department volunteer said.

Asked what he’ll do now, he had a one-word answer: “Rebuild.”

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