"We Made It Out. We're Alive" Veranda House Guests Recall Harrowing Escape From Fire
Jason Graziadei and David Creed •
There were 36 guests inside 18 rooms at the historic Veranda House inn on the morning that it burned to the ground in a massive blaze.
All of them managed to escape the fire on Saturday with their lives, along with the lone staff member of the hotel who was on duty at the time.
The three dozen guests - young and old, and even one holding a baby - fled the burning structure grabbing any belongings they could and gathered in the courtyard of the hotel, many still in their pajamas. All were simply grateful to be alive. Here are a few of their stories:
Alexandra and David Murray, Room 221
Alexandra Murray was visiting Nantucket with her husband David and family from San Francisco to celebrate her 40th birthday. Murray is six-months pregnant, and they were staying in room 221 at the Veranda House on their final night on the island.
They awoke Saturday morning to the alarm going off inside the Veranda House around 6:30 a.m.
“We were dead asleep and woke up to the alarm. My husband thought it was a prank,” Murray said. “We opened the door to the porch and looked to the left and our porch was on fire.”
Still in their pajamas, the Murrays grabbed what they could out of their room and ran to the interior stairwell, into the lobby and out into the courtyard. They turned around to take a photo, and saw that their room was already engulfed in flames.
“We have hugged each other throughout the day, at least 20 times in disbelief thinking about what a difference a few seconds could have made,” Murray said. “We’ve counted our blessings a million times. Being pregnant, and this is our first child, to have no smoke inhalation and to make it out safely? The whole thing is an absolute miracle and it could have been a total disaster.”
John Scarminach and Alexis Wagner, Room 234
John Scarminach and his wife Alexis Wagner were visiting Nantucket for the first time on a weekend getaway from their home in Atlanta. They arrived Friday afternoon, and checked into their room on the top floor of the Veranda House.
After a night out in downtown Nantucket, they awoke Saturday morning and heard an alarm going off in the hotel around 6:35 a.m. At first they thought someone may have just burned some toast. Then they heard yelling from the next room over.
“We started hearing panic and people running, we said ‘oh my god’,” Scarminach said. “We heard the guy next door yelling to his wife ‘it’s a real fire, get out now’!”
Still in their pajamas, Scarminach and Wagner grabbed what they could - cell phones and a wallet - and made a dash for the stairs, leaving the rest of their belongings behind in the room.
“When we got to the second floor you could see the glow coming from that side (toward Step Lane) and smoke,” Scarminach said.
They made it to the ground floor and out into the courtyard of the hotel, where other guests had gathered. Scarminach snapped a photo of the fire as he left the building, and the flames were already reaching from the ground floor all the way up to the roof.
“The heat was so intense we left the courtyard,” Scarminach recalled. “The fire was jumping across the street and the power lines were starting to catch fire.”
The hotel management called them to set them up with lodging at another location, but with their clothes, toiletries and laptops all destroyed in the fire, Scarminach and Wager decided to book a flight home Saturday night.
“It’s still surreal,” Scarminach said. “I said ‘there’s nothing we can do.’ We made it out, we’re alive.”
Nadine and David Gagnon, Room 212
Nadine and David Gannon recall it being 6:43 a.m. when they heard the Veranda House fire alarm sound off. Nadine said she remembers getting out of bed and walking to her door to check things out.
“I opened the door and I saw a man run by with a baby, smelled smoke, and from maybe five feet from the door was where the flames were,” she said. “I rushed my husband up and said ‘we have to go.’ I grabbed my pocketbook and we ran.”
“That’s what we have; our phones, a wallet, and we were out of there,” David said. “The first thing I saw was my brief case and so I grabbed it but there was nothing in it. So I just got out of there with an empty brief case and cell phone.”
The Gannons, who were visiting the island from Connecticut, were staying in room 212. Their room was visible from North Water Street. They said they lost all of their clothes aside from the ones on their backs, all of their jewelry, laptops, an iPad, and more.
“So we ran down the stairs and out the back and everybody is gathering. At 6:46 a.m. our room was engulfed by flames within three minutes of us leaving,” she said. “If we didn’t get out within 60 or 90 seconds of that alarm, I don’t think we ever would have.”
But the outreach and support from the island community has uplifted the Gannons. They said the acts of kindness and goodwill have been overwhelming.
It began in the grass area down the street close to the White Elephant Hotel, where people gathered to console one another as they looked on at the hotel engulfed in flames. They all were actively working to ensure that everyone was safe and out of the building.
“That was our main concern,” Nadine said. “We all wanted to make sure everyone got out. We had neighbors coming up to us inviting us into their homes. There were three people who actually took us to their home, made us breakfast, and gave my husband flip flops because he had no shoes on. It was just unbelievable.”
“I need the world to know what this community is because it gives people hope. I am overwhelmed with the generosity and kindness. The Nantucket Fire Department, the Nantucket Police Department, as soon as they arrived they jumped into action and they were there for us to support us in anyway. There were a couple women from the hospital saying whatever you need, let us know. I have never seen a community like this.”
They swung by the Brotherhood for dinner Saturday night and were adamantly told that they weren’t paying for dinner and their entire bill was covered by the restaurant.
In the aftermath, the Gannons ran into Nantucket Fire Department Captain Frank Hanlon outside of the Regatta Inn. Hanlon had assisted them in the midst of the fire to make sure they were safe. David Gannon said Hanlon remembered their names Sunday morning and has attempted to support them in any way.
“It was just overwhelmingly incredible,” Nadine said. “The entire community was. I have never seen anything like it. We were complete strangers to this island and everyone is dropping off clothes. Centre Point and Vineyard Vines have been extremely gracious to us.”
The two have been visiting the island dating back as many as 20 years ago, when David’s aunt and uncle worked here. They stopped coming for a number of years as they raised their family and life took over, but began their Nantucket trips again about five years ago. They said they will definitely be coming back moving forward, saying how much they have grown to appreciate the island and the people who live here.
James and Kim Wolitarsky, Room 233
James Wolitarsky was up early at the Veranda House Saturday morning around 5 a.m., checking emails and looking through his phone while his wife Kim was fast asleep. At around 6 a.m. both were awake and planning out how to spend their day. They recall the alarm going off at approximately 6:26 a.m.
“I’m just like c’mon man, seriously?” James said. “Like it must be somebody’s hair dryer or someone is smoking a cigarette. These things happen all the time. Just the last thing you want to deal with first thing in the morning on a Saturday. We get up and I start putting a pair of shorts on and a t-shirt. Kim is fumbling around the room with her pajamas on. I put ear plugs in so I could gather my stuff without being annoyed by the sound. That’s when somebody in the hallway goes ‘it’s a real fire, get the hell out!’ And I’m just like whoa, this changes everything.”James said he opened the door, looked to his right, and saw flames outside the window rising up the building.
“I look at Kim and say we have to go now,” he said. “We immediately just dropped any and all things and got out. We lost everything except her phone and my wallet.”
The Wolitarskys said the craziest part of the escape was going down the stairs, which were narrow and didn’t provide much room for comfort.
“We are going down this tiny staircase, we didn’t know where the fire was or where it had spread, and we knew if this fire started coming up one of these staircases forget it, you’re barbecue,” James said. “That was the scariest thing. Just going down the stairs not knowing where the fire was or how bad it was.”
They made it out, along with their daughter and her friend who were staying in a neighboring building. The Wolitarskys said they were upset with the response time by the public safety officials on the island, saying that they believed it took too long for them to arrive.
“We walked out onto the lawn and Kim didn’t even have shoes on,” James said. “We are looking up just watching this thing cook and then after a few minutes I’m looking around wondering where the fire department is. There were no sirens. No police cruisers or engines. I was blown away at the lack of response. This thing was flaming up. I am still in shock and really upset there was no one here.”
The Wolitarskys said they didn’t want to discredit the heroic efforts of the fire department once they arrived and battled the fire throughout the day saving lives, but questioned why it took so long, in their opinion, for a response, adding that the fault could very well fall on the alarm system not properly alerting the department of what was going on.
“We don't know what happened or why but something went wrong,” Lisa said.
The Wolitarskys had a week-long trip planned at a rental property beginning on Saturday, but were on the island a few days early because they could not get a Saturday boat reservation, which led to them staying at the Veranda House. They called Great Point Properties to ask if they could access the rental prior to the 3 p.m. time they were initially given.
They were given the approval and more from the Great Point Properties team.
“Laura Belair showed up down at Stop & Shop and immediately gave me money,” Lisa said. “She got her entire team of realtors at Great Point Properties to get us clothing, essentials, toiletries, shoes, bathing suits, pajamas, underwear.”
Another woman came up to the family later on and said she wanted to help. She asked for a phone number, and later reached out to say that Vineyard Vines wanted to supply them with clothing.
During this interview, James was wearing an outfit entirely made up of Vineyard Vines apparel while Kim was wearing an outfit made up of clothes from strangers.
“Vineyard Vines gave me everything I needed like shorts, pants, fleece, shirts, and when I went up to pay they said nope you’re good,” James said. “We were blown away by that. That was very cool."
"Then Rose & Crown offered a free lunch to our entire family and Green Market sent over whole bag of facewash, conditioner,” Lisa said. "Everyone on this island has said 'what can I get you, what do you need?' It has been very cool and amazing to see. We are so thankful for it.”