Mystic fire destroys waterfront buildings as exploding tanks create 'horrifying' scene, witnesses say

MYSTIC — Deb Resnick said she looked out her window Sunday night toward the Mystic River and saw a red-colored sky followed by “big, billowing black clouds” of smoke that filled the air.

Resnick and her spouse, Jenifer Bradley, live many blocks from a massive fire that devastated waterfront buildings on Washington Street, but the images and sounds of "a lot of popping" were still quite clear.  

Mystic Fire Chief Anthony P. Manfredi Jr. said a 911 caller first reported the flames in the area of the Seaport Marine around the same time Resnick saw the red sky and black smoke at 9 p.m. Sunday.

Manfredi said Monday morning during a news conference near the smoking waterfront ruins that crews encountered "heavy" smoke and flames coming from the front of the building. By the time he arrived, Manfredi said, he struck a fourth alarm to bring additional manpower and equipment to the scene. 

"It was a wind-driven fire, so it was spreading very rapidly," the chief said. Firefighters evacuated the entire block and began protecting other buildings from being exposed to the flames. A fire boat was also used to pump water on the south side of the building.

One firefighter was evaluated at the scene for smoke inhalation and released without being transported to the hospital, Manfredi said. No other injuries were reported.

Seaport Marine is at 2 Washington St., across the Mystic River from downtown Mystic. It includes a waterfront restaurant, Red 36, which survived the fire, although patrons had to stay put once the fire started because there was no safe way to leave, said Peter Fenn, who lives across the river and talked to a staff member after the fire was under control. 

Prestige Yacht Sales, which is also located at 2 Washington St., was among the businesses consumed by the fire, Manfredi said. Fenn said a large boat that was dropped off there a few weeks ago was among those destroyed by the flames, which he saw as he stepped out onto his porch to lock his car. 

The fire raged in the shipyard across the water, he said, sending up flames that seemed to reach 100 feet in the air. 

“It was loud,” Fenn said. “The cracking of timber, fuel tanks exploding. It was a little horrifying. I wasn’t scared, but it was horrifying because you don’t know if the whole town is going to go up.” 

The Old Mystic Fire Department shared photos on Facebook showing massive flames and smoke shooting from the Seaport Marine building into the night sky. At times, the fire and thick smoke rolled as it was blown by the wind.   

Norwich's fire union said multiple buildings had become fully engulfed by flames, and a "few" had collapsed. Numerous apparatus, including a fire boat, were involved in battling the blaze, the union said in a post on its Facebook page. 

Stonington Police Capt. Todd M. Olson said a man was trying to get into his house next to the fire when first responders told him to leave. The house ended up being completely destroyed, with only part of it still standing Monday. 

Olson said he parked his police car a few blocks from the fire, at Holmes Street and Route 1 near the drawbridge, and it “was covered with embers.” 

The smoke was so bad, the staff at The Whaler’s Inn at 20 E. Main St., or Route 1, a few blocks away had guests go to a different hotel in another part of town, Olson said. 

Josephine Guarnaccia's bed and breakfast, Mermaid Inn of Mystic, is about seven blocks from the site. But the fire was so big, she said, “It looked like it was in a neighbor’s backyard.” 

She and Jane Fitzgerald made sure the windows were all closed tightly to keep the smoke out. 

Manfredi said firefighters were able to get the blaze under control around 1:30 a.m. Monday. 

He said crews planned to fly a drone over the rubble and begin removing the large amount of metal debris to investigate the fire's cause and origin.

"It's still an active scene, we're just starting our investigation now," said Manfredi, who also serves as the fire marshal. Troopers from the Connecticut State Police Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit were on the scene helping local investigators determine the cause. 

Crews had to contend with exploding propane tanks and power lines that had burned and fallen from the fire, Manfredi said, requiring utility crews to shut down the power grid.

"We have had a lot of major fires in Mystic," Manfredi said. "It's unfortunate and we rely heavily on our mutual aide partners."

One problem at Sunday night's fire was access to the scene, he said.

"As you can see, the roads are really narrow, we had four ladder trucks here operating, so access was a challenging situation for us, but we overcame it," he said.

Winds blew to the north — toward downtown Mystic — during the fire, requiring crews to protect buildings on the north side of Washington Street, Manfredi said. 

Crews were expected to remain on scene all day Monday, but families living in surrounding homes were able to return. Several boats were also destroyed in the blaze, Manfredi said. He believed five boats were destroyed, including at least three that were inside the building.

"It was a very dangerous situation," he said.

Harry Boardsen, general manager of Seaport Marine, thanked the firefighters for getting the fire under control. 

“Last night a fire destroyed several structures at Seaport Marine, with no injuries and very contained damage due to the fast and effective intervention of first responders," Boardsen said in a statement. "The Stonington Fire Department and state fire marshal are studying the cause of the fire. We are working to have the site cleared of debris as soon as possible. We are thankful for all the first responders for their efforts in containing the blaze and protecting adjacent property." 

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the location of the fire and the businesses affected.;;