Nantucket Fire Captain Nate Barber had already rushed into the burning Veranda House on Saturday, only to be forced back by thick, choking smoke. But as he stood outside the hotel, a man begged him to try again.
“He said, ‘My son is in there’ ” and pointed toward a second-floor window, Barber said by phone on Monday. Barber said he used a patio table to jump up to a first-floor roof and reach the window. But when he got inside, no one was there.
He went into the hallway, where he saw a couple in their 20s struggling in the smoke.
“I yelled down to them, grabbed them,” Barber recalled. They managed to escape out a window onto the roof and someone came around the corner with a ladder to help them down to safety.
“They thanked me, and they looked terrified,” Barber said of the couple. “They were in a pretty terrifying situation.”
It wasn’t clear if the man Barber saved was the son of the man he had encountered outside. But no one working or staying at the hotel was hurt in the fire, with most evacuating when the alarms sounded.
Barber said he didn’t hesitate when the man pleaded with him to save his son, even though he was off duty and without any protective gear.
“I know I was going into something really dangerous, but I just kept going,” Barber said. “I have two sons, and I know that that hit me: If my son was up there, I would want someone to go get him. After that raw emotion, I didn’t think about it very hard.”
Barber commended the entire staff of his small department, including Deputy Fire Chief Sean Mitchell, who he said was “the biggest hero, in my opinion,” for his efforts to “stop the whole town from burning down.”
“I’d like to stress that the Nantucket Fire Department is a really small fire department with limited resources but extraordinary men and women who always do more with less,” Barber said. “I just played a small part.”
Three firefighters were hospitalized for heat exhaustion and a fourth for a back injury, officials said. All four have been released from the hospital.
Barber’s path also crossed with Peter Georgantas, who was out for an early-morning walk before an exercise class when he saw thick smoke billowing about a half-mile away.
“I knew it was a hotel; there’s got to be people sleeping in there,” said Georgantas, a Boston developer, by telephone. He ran to the inn, went in through a back door and “started banging on doors, yelling ‘Fire!’ as loud as I could,” he said. He heard voices on the second floor but the smoke was too thick, forcing him to retreat downstairs. He learned later that Barber had helped the couple escape.
“When I reached the second floor, voices were yelling, ‘Over here, over here!’ ” Georgantas said. “I couldn’t see. The smoke started to fill in behind me, and that’s the only time I was worried. People are yelling, fire alarms are screeching, smoke’s filling around you ... I was coughing a lot at that point. I couldn’t breathe too much.”
He and Barber then went back inside the inn, at an end of the building the fire hadn’t yet reached, to make sure everyone was out.
Georgantas even managed to attend his boot camp session later in the morning.
“I worked most of [the smoke] out of my chest,” he said. “I think that helped better than laying on the couch.”
The fire destroyed the 17th-century inn and two other historic buildings. The fire started under the front porch where hotel trash was stored and was caused by improper disposal of smoking materials, the leading cause of fatal fires, officials said.
“If you still smoke, or if you have guests who do, it’s extremely important to be sure all smoking materials are fully extinguished,” said State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey in a statement. “Never stub out a butt on a porch or stairway or toss it in a planter, mulch, or debris, where it can smolder unseen before igniting a fire.”