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BLOCK ISLAND

Block Island officials confirm R.I. attorney general investigating Harborside Inn fire

The owner of the company that had inspected the kitchen’s fire suppression system has been stripped of his journeyman license after the state fire marshal determined that the fire began inside the hotel’s restaurant, “in or near the kitchen hood and exhaust fans.”

The Harborside Inn on Block Island is a historic property that was devastated by a fire that started in the restaurant's kitchen on Aug. 18.Alexa Gagosz/Globe Staff

NEW SHOREHAM, R.I. — Town officials on Block Island confirmed Thursday that Attorney General Peter F. Neronha and the state fire marshal’s office are investigating inspection and fire prevention failures of the Harborside Inn, which had not been inspected for years before it was devastated by a fire last month.

“Now that the state fire marshal and the attorney general’s office is engaged, I don’t feel the need to send that letter” and ask the state to begin a new investigation, said First Warden Keith Stover during a New Shoreham Town Council meeting on Thursday afternoon.

Town officials said they will be asking the fire marshal’s and attorney general’s office to keep the council updated over their investigation.

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“I just feel like we’re not getting direct information,” said Town Councilor Martha Ball, who said they’ve only received updates through news reports.

According to documents obtained by the Globe through a public records request, the historic building had not been inspected by the state fire marshal’s office since at least 2019. In the days after the Aug. 18 fire, the fire marshal’s office told reporters that the state had inspected the property in April and it was in “full compliance.”

The building was deemed a total loss, and is currently being demolished.

The state fire marshal’s report, which was obtained by the Globe through a separate public records request, determined that the fire began inside the hotel’s restaurant, the Harbor Grill and Orchid Lounge, “in or near the kitchen hood and exhaust fans.“

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, investigators wrote, had been stored under a shed roof next to the kitchen that also had grease on it.

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According to the report, Peter Freund, the owner of Emergency Services of New England LLC, who conducted the last inspection of the kitchen suppression system before the fire, acknowledged to investigators that the system was not compliant, even though he had marked it as being compliant.

“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,” the report reads. Freund also told investigators that the control box was not supported and certain parts were no longer available on the market, and “stated that he does not, and never has, tested the manual gas valve.”

On Friday, Rhode Island state officials notified Freund that his journeyman license had been revoked.

Town officials are also considering asking the attorney general to investigate the operators of the building who were responsible for investing in, cleaning, and maintaining the property.

”Our volunteer fire and rescue department, firefighters from the mainland who participated in an historic and heroic mutual aid effort, and guests staying in our island’s downtown were in jeopardy, apparently because of a failure to adequately inspect, invest in, and maintain fire safety infrastructure and kitchen cleaning protocols,” wrote members of the New Shoreham Town Council in a draft letter that was obtained by the Globe.

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At their meeting on Thursday, members of the town council also discussed whether town solicitors and the fire department should investigate whether any town ordinances on fire prevention and protection were violated, according to the Thursday’s meeting agenda posted online.

Neither State Fire Marshal Tim 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, Rhode Island Commerce spokesman Matthew Touchette wrote in a 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.” (The fire marshal’s office is part of the Department of Building Regulation, which is within Commerce.)

When the fire marshal’s office took over inspection duties from the town in 2019, 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.”

Stover said Thursday that the state fire marshal’s office is “terrific to us.”

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,” according to the state fire marshal’s report. “The menu contains a lot of fried items and the hood is typically dirty by the end of the season.”

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The last hood cleaning was in May 2022, the fire marshal‘s office report noted. The next scheduled service was supposed to occur “180 days later.” The fire occurred more than 14 months after the hood was last cleaned.

In email correspondence with the Globe, Krastev pushed back on investigators’ claims that his restaurant was not clean.

“We have very high cleaning standards and we’re keeping the kitchen line clean and grease free,“ said Krastev in an email to the Globe. “We were also updating the kitchen according to the standards as much as possible by replacing old equipment with new when needed.”

“We’ve never had issues with the hood,” said Krastev.

This story has been updated with information from the New Shoreham Town Council meeting on Thursday.


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