The V.I. Fire Department members – and at least one uniformed V.I. Police officer manning a hose on a second-level balcony – battled a stubborn fire which gutted the second floor businesses in the iconic Mongoose Junction.
A fireball blew out of the entrance to The Tap Room while firefighters were struggling to battle the Mongoose Junction fire from the opposite side of the complex on the small porch outside the office of developer Glenn Spear on Friday, January 23. Water company tanker trucks were shuttling water to refill V.I. Fire Department pumper trucks in the driveway to the rear parking lot of the complex.
CRUZ BAY — “We’re going to need a new roof,” said Mongoose Junction commercial complex developer, builder, owner and community leader Glenn Speer stoically as he watched a relentless, late-morning fire slowly begin to spread through the wood-frame second floor section of one of three buildings in the island’s first “shopping mall” through the late morning and early afternoon of Friday, January 23.
The origination and cause of the fire is under investigation with conflicting reports from witnesses as to its smoldering start.
The first report of the fire was called in at 11:13 a.m. Friday, according to Assistant Fire Service Director Daryl George. Three units were dispatched from Zulu company in Cruz Bay and additional units were called in from Romeo Company in Coral Bay and all off-duty firefighters on the island were called to duty. The fire was brought under control by about 3 p.m.
The daytime fire at the island’s iconic Cruz Bay commercial center outside the entrance to the V.I. National Park was almost on island time, developing slowly as crowds gathered in front of the complex on North Shore Road, Route 20, through the late morning with a growing stream of foot traffic attracted to the scene from the center of town by the increasingly-billowing, acrid, brown smoke visible for miles.
It was about an hour after the V.I. Fire Department arrived on the scene before the fire erupted and flashed over the second floor charring businesses and offices.
Island Administrator Leads Assist
New St. John Administrator Camille Paris was in the thick of the firefight directing a steady shuttle of water trucks to keep the firefighters supplied as smoke and flames steadily increased on the second floor amid a series of setbacks including inadequate water supply and V.I.F.D. breathing apparatus equipment woes which prevented firefighters from getting inside the wood frame second floor office of Speer’s businesses to fight the fire which started in the second-floor day spa.
Tourist traffic to and from Cruz Bay to the St. John Virgin Islands National Park and typical island morning island traffic snaked past a jumble of fire apparatuses in position around the two-story, mostly-stone structures through the morning as tenants, management and firefighters struggled to keep the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings in the seven-building complex.
After the fireball erupted more than an hour into the firefight, store owners from the adjacent complex deployed a garden hose to check the flames which had torched the canvas roof of the Island Grill restaurant and threatened to spread the conflagration to the wooden trellises of the adjacent building housing Caravan Gallery.
WAPA Bucket Trucks Give Firefighters Lift
The fire was finally brought under control and doused after V.I. Water and Power Authority trucks were deployed to use their bucket lifts to raise firefighters above the two-story building to fight the blaze.
“WAPA saved the day,” Speer said succinctly.
The fire began in the rear building of the three original buildings in the oldest of the two adjoining commercial complexes and V.I. Fire Services personnel fought an extended battle fraught with water supply, breathing equipment and personnel problems to try to prevent the fire from spreading under the the corrugated metal-covered roof to the front of the building.
In the course of the late morning, the fire spread under the roof from the rear of the building all the way to the front, eventually flashing over to char both the The Tap Room and The Beauty Lounge as builder and owner Speer had predicted. The fire never reached the other buildings in the complex.
A fireball blew out of the entrance to The Tap Room and The Beauty Lounge in the center of Mongoose Junction near mid-day. At about the same time, firefighters were struggling to battle the fire on the opposite side of the complex from the small porch above the driveway to the parking lot behind the commercial complex.
Water company tanker trucks were shuttling water to refill V.I. Fire Department pumper trucks from the Robert O’Conner Sr. Fire Station and the Coral Bay Fire Station on the scene for hours.
Two trucks were in position in front of the complex in the event the fire spread to those two buildings, and two trucks were positioned alongside the burning building in the driveway to the rear parking lot until the WAPA trucks were backed into position.
Complaints of Fumes
The fire apparently began around 10 a.m. in the The Beauty Lounge spa that had not yet opened for the day. Spa owner Sophia Boynes told St. John Tradewinds she went to Mongoose Junction representatives about the noxious fumes and together they searched for the source of the acrid odor. There are conflicting reports that the fire began in a clothes dryer in the day spa.
VIFD Clears Hurdles
The VIFD had to clear a series of hurdles in finding and fighting the stubborn fire.
There was no confirmation of reports that the Fire Department had problems with breathing equipment and ran out of air canisters, a half-dozen of which littered the ground near the trucks by late morning.
While two firefighters with air packs could be seen on the rear corner of the roof of the building, a uniformed V.I Police Department firefighters on the second floor balcony was helping two firefighters working without breathing devices train their house into the rear entrance to the Mongoose Junction business office. The Spears’ office was completely gutted by the fire.
The fire eventually burned through the interior of the second level of the original portion of the native-stone façade commercial complex – from the day spa directly above Northshore Deli to the popular The Tap Room bar.
The Tap Room Will Rebuild,
Northshore Deli Will Reopen
Ocean Grill Damaged
The newly-renovated original Mongoose Deli location on the ground-level which owners Demetrious and wife Nikki Ahladis reopened in October and a portion of the neighboring al fresco Ocean Grill restaurant suffered water damage. There were unconfirmed reports an air conditioning unit had fallen through a burned section of the roof over Ocean Grill offices.
Ahladis and staff and were laboring through the weekend to clean up from the fire after having discarded all the food and supplies in the establishment. Power had been restored to Northshore Deli by Sunday and the new owners were hoping to reopen as soon as possible,
The Tap Room bar was entirely destroyed, but Spear said the owners are committed to rebuilding the business in the location.
The new owners of The Fabric Mill, located on the ground level under The Tap Room could not be reached for comment.
“We’ll build a better building,” Speer said. “It won’t be as nice – probably not as many details. It’s too expensive today.”
(The front building in the complex Speer developed with his wife Radha suffered a similar fate about 15 years ago, Speer recalled. That building subsequently was rebuilt.)
“The community has been wonderful,” Speer emphasized. “ WAPA has been very good.”
The older section of the seven main buildings in the complex is connected to the adjacent Mongoose Junction II by two concrete walks that bridge the broad dry ghutt which bisects and flows under portions of the two properties.
After the fireball erupted from the rear building of the neightboring complex and firefighters had not yet appeared between the two complexes, tenants of Mongoose II scrambled to unravel a landscaping hose to extend across the second level patio to the front of the spa where the flames were threatening to reach the portico of Caravan Gallery on the second floor of one of the two street-front buildings in the neighboring Mongoose Junction complex.
The roaring conflagration torched the canvas roof over the outdoor dining of The Island Grill, but when the fire was over, the outer awning of the restaurant nearest Caravan Gallery was almost unsinged.
Saved by a garden hose.