OGUNQUIT — As investigators worked Wednesday to determine the cause of the fire that destroyed the Blue Water Inn in Ogunquit Beach, residents and visitors mourned the potentially permanent loss of a landmark institution that was supposed to open for the season in two weeks.

“It’s just so sad,” said Kathy Rose, a summer resident who is from Newburyport, Massachusetts. “The food was great. You’d go in and get a big hug from Roger,” she said, referring to Roger LaPierre, who, along with Leona LaPierre, owned the inn. “It was just this wonderful, realized atmosphere.”

Rose was one of a steady stream of people who drove or walked across the bridge over the Ogunquit River from downtown to the small resort area to stare at the burnt husk of the inn.

The fire broke out Tuesday night and destroyed the inn and the second floor of the adjacent Huckleberry’s restaurant, which also consisted of guest rooms. Huckleberry’s, popular with locals and known for its blueberry pancakes, recently opened for the season.

In the aftermath of the fire, the large picture windows were blown out but the dining room fixtures were largely undisturbed with inverted coffee cups and bowls brimming with sugar packets set out on each table, and pictures still hanging on the walls.

Investigators with the State Fire Marshal’s Office had not examined the inside of the Blue Water Inn by early afternoon Wednesday because three of the four walls are in danger of collapsing, said Sgt. Ken Grimes of the fire marshal’s office. The building is built on pilings, which also contributes to its instability, he said.

An external inspection as well as witness statements suggests the fire started in the kitchen area, which is also where the electrical service enters the building, Grimes said.

Investigators were waiting to see if an insurance investigator would be responding, Grimes said. The investigation probably will require peeling away badly damaged sections of the building with excavating equipment.

“We only get one shot at it,” Grimes said, adding that they wanted to give the insurance company representative a chance to be there.

Jeb Dufresne, whose mother Leona LaPierre, started the inn back in the 1970s, said he does not know how the fire started but suspects it was electrical. The last worker to leave Tuesday night had been mopping and then closed the building. There was no cooking or renovations underway, he said.

Even though her children had taken over running the seven-room inn and restaurant specializing in seafood, the loss of the inn is a huge blow to his mother, he said.

“It’s her baby. It’s her life, really. It’s her social life, her business life. It’s where she’s made a lot of friends from throughout the world,” Dufresne said. “And it’s a sad loss for the community. It’s like an institution.”

But his family is relieved as well.

“We’re so happy this didn’t happen on Fourth of July at 2 in the morning,” Dufresne said. “It’s an old inn and with the wind and everything, it went up good. We’re just thankful nobody was there and really thankful nobody got hurt.”

Dufresne said he hopes the area can be cleaned up quickly but he suspects it will be the end of the business, where he started cooking at the age of 14. Now 59, he owns his own restaurant in town, Cove Cafe.

The owners will contact the guests who had booked rooms for the season, but they had not started that process yet, he said.

“We have some guests that have been coming here since we opened,” he said.

Ogunquit Fire Chief Mark O’Brien said the location of the fire and strong winds posed challenges and hazards for firefighters, as did a lack of water.

The department was first notified by an alarm system in the building, but when the first engine crossed the bridge leading to the popular tourist destination, the building was already in flames, O’Brien said.

The fire hydrant across from the inn was not charged with water when firefighters first arrived but was activated quickly and did not have a noticeable impact on their ability to fight the fire, O’Brien said. However, the hydrant was fed by a temporary fire supply hose that is much smaller than the underground pipe that would normally carry water to the area. Crews extended supply hoses over the bridge railing and into the river, using the brackish water to supply fire hoses.

The wind drove the flames and smoke across the single road leading into the area, causing electrical wires from the inn to a utility pole across the street to fall into the roadway.

Those conditions prevented other fire equipment from getting off the bridge. After firefighters doused the flames and Central Maine Power shut down power to the area, additional firefighters and equipment were able to access the site, O’Brien said.

Crews could not get inside the building because of the heavy fire and worked to keep the flames from spreading to the adjacent restaurant and other nearby properties. They were able to save a new wing on the back side of Huckleberry’s, where workers were still putting the finishing touches on the construction in anticipation of the season.

Milt Vargelis, whose family has operated the nearby Neptune Motor Inn for 90 years, said he was worried the winds, at 30 to 40 mph, could carry flames to his building. He said a fire in the 1940s destroyed almost all the buildings on the block except for his family’s motel.

Vargelis said he called 911 when he first saw “a little wisp of smoke coming out of the windows” at the inn, but within moments flames were leaping from the building.

He praised the firefighters who fought the blaze.

“They fought it, they turned it around and started extinguishing it and that alone saved all the buildings on the beach,” he said. “All the praise should go to them for saving what’s left down here.”

Vargelis said it’s a tough time of year for an incident like this.

“Everyone in the hospitality industry is gearing for the tourist season,” he said. His first guests arrive in two weeks.

But he said the could have been a lot worse.

“It wasn’t a tragedy. No one was killed,” he said. “What burned down was buildings, not businesses.”

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @Mainehenchman

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