Veranda House Neighbor Rushed The Fire With A Garden Hose And A Ladder
David Creed •
Frank Harris was feeding his animals early Saturday morning when he heard an alarm at the Veranda House. Harris lived in the house adjacent to the inn, which was situated just eight feet away. At first, he assumed it was just a malfunctioning alarm system. Then he suddenly heard the sound of crackling flames and breaking wood, and he immediately sprang into action.
“I yelled for Susan (his longtime girlfriend) to get out of the house screaming ‘the Veranda House is on fire’ because she was still in bed,” he said. “I went outside and it was like a tinderbox. So I grabbed our garden hose and I’m standing on the street spraying the back deck of the Veranda trying to keep their flame from coming onto our home.”
An officer arrived on scene and attempted to get Harris, a former naval officer, to leave. The officer was unsuccessful.
“I told him ‘listen I went into combat when you were in elementary school. I’m not leaving'," he said. “So he ended up leaving me alone for a few minutes and so I kept spraying and fighting the flames. But then there were people on the second floor. I didn’t really notice them at first because I was trying to fight the flames. People were running down the street in their underwear screaming ‘oh my god, oh my god.’ It was total chaos and bedlam, man.”
Harris said off-duty fire captain Nate Barber showed up shortly after. He said as Barber was running through the hotel yelling for people to evacuate, he remembered the ladder sitting in his yard from when he had a new roof put on the house recently.
“I had totally forgot about the ladder because I was so busy fighting the flames, then I was like ‘sh** I have to get that ladder,’” he said. “So I grab it, bring it over, and Nate yanks it from me. Nate is a good dude, man. He was intense. He was yelling and screaming. He saved lives. I was like who the hell is this guy? He comes up to me and says ‘I’m an off-duty firefighter and you’re going to listen to me’ and I was like 'yes sir, you got my attention. I’m listening'.”
As Harris battled the fire, a new battle began with the police officer after he returned. Harris said the officer threatened to arrest him.
“I was in a panic,” he said. “I had the hose in my hand trying to put the fire out, could feel the heat and power of that fire, and I was trying to get this cop to leave me alone so he would let me put the fire out.”
Harris proceeded to jump the fence separating his home from the hotel to search for his cat, which he had for 11 years. She was sadly killed in the fire, an emotional Harris said.
“I knew she was hiding but I also saw how quickly the Veranda was going up in flames. I knew that was going to happen at our house too. I could feel the heat. I wanted to try to find my cat and so I ran up to the third floor but couldn’t find her. I said to myself if I leave right now I know she’s going to die, but if I don’t leave right now, then I’m going to die,” Harris said. “I know it is just a cat, but I have had her for 11 years. I really loved that cat. I had to make that decision to leave in one and a half seconds and of course she was found dead. I’ve dealt with death, but it feels like when an animal dies it is so tough. They are so innocent.”
Their cat, along with the home, was lost in the fire. Harris ultimately fled the residence and jumped in his Jeep to park it away from the fire. He said as he was about to drive away, an old foe approached him. It was the police officer ordering Harris out of the vehicle, but Harris told him he had just filled it with gas and didn't want it to explode, which led to the officer ultimately letting him leave and park it elsewhere.
On Sunday, Harris was permitted to go in and retrieve any belongings that may have survived. He said all of his clothes have suffered severe smoke damage.
“I have tried washing them three times and the smell of smoke doesn’t come out,” he said. “I lost everything and will probably have to get rid of all of these clothes.”
Harris said the island community gave him hope Saturday night when he went to Island Kitchen, desperate for something to eat. As he arrived, he was told that they had just closed.
“I said ‘look I could really use something to eat. I haven’t ate in a while. My house burned down earlier today.’ They all looked at me and were like what? So they went back in, made me some food, and then when I went to pay they said it was free and on them. I told them I didn’t want charity, I just wanted a burger and a taco,” Harris said. “People are just so kind.”
Harris said he and Susan’s future is uncertain at this time.
“Our house was totally destroyed,” he said. “So we are renting a place off Cliff Road for the next 10 days and then we aren’t really sure what we are going to do after that. We were very lucky to find this place though, man, in the middle of the summer.”
Harris said he doesn’t consider anything he did heroic, but simply actions that any person would take in that situation. He remained humble, continuing to credit other islanders, Barber, the Nantucket Fire and Police Departments, and other first responders for their bravery and selfless acts.
“The fire department did a great job of containing that fire,” he said. “It destroyed three properties but it could have been a lot more. They are heroes as well.”
Another hero also emerged from the scene. Peter Georgantas, a seasonal resident from Boston, set the ladder up and ran into the hotel, knocking down over a dozen hotel room doors and saving countless lives alongside Barber. Dean Geddes, a senior news reporter for the Inquirer and Mirror, caught up with Georgantas. You can read about his heroics here.