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Historic Block Island inn destroyed in fire had not been inspected by state since 2019

‘The maintenance and cleaning of the hood was a factor’ in causing the fire that destroyed the Harborside Inn, inspectors wrote in a report obtained by the Globe

Aftermath of fire at the Harborside Inn on Block Island, Rhode Island.Block Island Times

NEW SHOREHAM, R.I. — Though the state fire marshal told the Boston Globe that the Harborside Inn had undergone a fire inspection in April and was in “full compliance,” records obtained by the Globe on Friday through a public records request show that the building had not been inspected by the state fire marshal since 2019.

The historic inn on Block Island was destroyed in a fire on Aug. 18 and is currently being demolished. At the time of the fire, state Fire Marshal Timothy McLaughlin told the Globe that the April 25 inspection evaluated the building’s sprinkler, fire alarm, and hood ansul
systems, which are designed to capture cooking fumes and smoke in the kitchen.

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“The Office of the State Fire Marshal has no record on file for inspections done at 41 Water Street since the office took over inspections from the Town of New Shoreham in 2019,” Matthew Touchette, a spokesman for Rhode Island Commerce, which oversees the fire marshal’s office, said in a statement. The building that had been inspected in April was located at 213 Water St., which is not the location of the Harborside Inn.

“We are deeply aware of the importance of accuracy in communication and take full responsibility for the error,” added Touchette.

The fire began inside the hotel’s restaurant, the Harbor Grill and Orchid Lounge, “in or near the kitchen hood and exhaust fans,” according to the official case report by the Rhode Island Office of the State Fire Marshal, which the Globe also obtained Friday through another public records request.

Written by state fire investigator Hannah J. Burnes, the report noted that investigators found a “visible accumulation” of grease on “all surfaces,” including the kitchen’s hood system. It also noted the Harborside Inn had seven 120-gallon propane tanks that were “heavily corroded and rusted” and that several had grease on their covers and sides. Some of the gas tanks, she wrote in her report, had been stored under a shed roof next to the kitchen that also had grease on it.

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Neither McLaughlin nor James Given, the acting chief deputy of the state Fire Marshal’s office, immediately responded to the Globe’s questions asking why the property had not had a fire inspection for at least four years. Instead, Touchette wrote in another statement that the state fire marshal conducts “inspections periodically,” which “does not relieve the property and business owners of obligations to comply with fire code.”

When the fire marshal’s office took over inspection duties from the town, it “was required to be brought up to speed on inspections there,” wrote Touchette. “The COVID-19 pandemic followed which slowed and, in some cases, halted many inspections. Since then, the OSFM has been working to conduct all inspections on Block Island.”

Atanas Krastev, who has owned and operated the restaurant inside the inn since 2020, told investigators that the kitchen’s hood is “cleaned at the beginning of the season (around May) and at the end of the season (around September) every year,” state fire investigator Hannah J. Burnes wrote in the report. “The menu contains a lot of fried items and the hood is typically dirty by the end of the season.”

The last hood cleaning was in May 2022, Burnes wrote in their report. The next scheduled service was supposed to occur “180 days later.” The fire occurred more than 14 months after the hood was last cleaned.

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The Harborside Inn on Block Island is a historic property first constructed as The Pequot House in 1879, and was devastated by a fire that began in the first-floor kitchen on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. Alexa Gagosz/Globe Staff

“This is well outside the timeline stated to me by the restaurant staff and outside the allowable time per Rhode Island Fire Code,” wrote Burnes. “It explains the advanced level of grease accumulation in the hood system which would have acted to accelerate fire growth.”

“It ... does not appear that routine cleaning is conducted on the cooking surfaces,” added Burnes. She detailed large amounts of grease and food debris throughout the kitchen and “on every appliance.”

“Grease drips were visible on sides of appliances and solidified grease was observed on the floor,” she wrote. “The baffles in the hood system were examined and it was noted that two baffles were not in place in the hood.”

The restaurant’s kitchen manager, Shevon McLean, told investigators that the hood was cleaned before he started working at the restaurant earlier this year. The baffles, he told investigators, are supposed to be removed and soaked in hot water and degreaser every two weeks. But McLean also said he did not know when they were last cleaned.

The two baffles were later found behind cooking appliances, and were not damaged in the fire. “There was solidified grease” on both baffles, which would have burned or melted off if they were properly placed in the hood during the fire, Burnes wrote.

“This fire was caused either by unattended cooking or failure to maintain protective baffles in the hood. In both scenarios, the maintenance and cleaning of the hood was a factor,” wrote Burnes in her investigative report.

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The health department found 18 violations during three separate visits to the restaurant on June 27, June 29, and July 18. The most-recent health inspection was on July 20.

Christopher Reed, a guest at the inn who identified himself as a retired firefighter, told investigators that he was alerted by a fire alarm in the kitchen of the hotel on Aug. 18. When he entered the kitchen, according to Burnes’s report, he saw a 3-gallon pot on a rear burner of the stove. Both the pot and the kitchen hood were on fire, he said. He attempted to turn off the stove’s burners and used a fire extinguisher, Reed told investigators.

Because Reed touched the burner controls, investigators said they could not determine if the burners were on or off before the fire began. However, the pot on the stove was later observed to contain fire damaged material, including “a large amount of grease.”

“It is unknown if the grease was present in the pot pre-fire or if it dripped down from the hood,” Burnes’s report said. “It was noted that the cook line, as a whole, contained a large accumulation of grease but it appeared more consistent with poor cleaning practices than with drop down from the hood above.”

Peter Freund, the owner of Emergency Services of New England LLC, also made “several comments” regarding his inspection procedures to Burnes and other investigators, including knowledge that the kitchen suppression system was not compliant.

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“Freund stated that he had verbally advised the building owner that the two components [a control head and a wet chemical cylinder] were not listed for use together but that, when the building owner did not want to pay for a new control head, Freund tagged the system as compliant regardless,” wrote Burnes in her report. “Freund also stated that he does not, and never has, tested the manual gas valve.”

Freund also told investigations that two other businesses on Block Island had the same control head and chemical cylinder.

The pressure release control box that’s part of the system at the Harborside Inn was labeled with the company name “Automatic Sprinkler Corp. of America,” which ceased doing business in 1994. Freund admitted to investigators that the control box was not supported and certain parts were no longer available on the market. Burnes wrote in her report that it is unclear as to when the control box was last tested.

Touchette said the state fire marshal’s office issued Freund a notice of revocation on Friday. The Globe requested a copy of the notice and other communications between the state and Freund, but did not get a response.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.