By Stephen J. Kotz
An early morning fire that swept through a house on Narrow Lane East in Sagaponack claimed the life of the homeowner and his pet dog on Saturday.
James Beres, 71, an abstract artist whose work is in the collection of the Whitney Museum and other galleries, died in the fire along with his poodle, Oliver. His wife, Lovella Wilson Beres, who was awakened by smoke detectors, tried to rescue her husband and the dog but was forced to flee due to heavy flames and thick smoke.
“We don’t know what happened. He didn’t sleep well. Our bedrooms were upstairs and he got up often in the middle of the night to watch some television,” she said. “I was awakened by the smoke alarms. We have a million smoke detectors and ran downstairs with the puppy. It was a fire.”
Ms. Beres said she tried to help her husband, whose clothing was on fire, by covering him with a blanket, but was soon forced to flee when the fire grew more intense.
Bridgehampton Fire Chief Gary Horsburgh said the department was notified shortly before 6 a.m. and second assistant chief Jeff White and Courtney and Samantha Dombkowski, who live just up the road, were at the scene, which is just across the road from Wolffer Estate Stables, within minutes.
“The house was just totally engulfed. There was no way we could send someone in,” said Chief Horsburgh. “We fought it from the outside with hose lines and had it knocked down in about 45 minutes.”
Bridgehampton volunteers were aided by the Sag Harbor Fire Department and received additional support from the Southampton Fire Department, which sent a tanker and additional firefighters, and the East Hampton Fire Department, which sent a pumper to serve on standby at the Bridgehampton Firehouse.
Chief Horsburgh said firefighters remained at the scene most of the day. “The arson squad and fire marshal found the body at about 1:30 p.m., covered by debris that had crashed down during the course of the fire, he said.
Southampton Town Fire Marshal John Rankin said on Wednesday that arson had been ruled out, but added that he did not known when, or even if, investigators would be able to establish a cause.
“The investigation is ongoing,” he said. “There was some very significant damage to the structure” making pinpointing a cause difficult.
By Saturday afternoon, the town Fire Marshal’s office had posted the property with signs, warning that the structure was unsafe. From the street, the house appeared completely gutted with the roof burned through.
Bob Beres, of Sag Harbor, who is the victim’s brother, said he had been notified of the fire by the Bridgehampton Fire Department at about 9 a.m. Saturday morning and rushed immediately to the scene.
“It went up like a tinder box,” he said. “She got out with literally seconds to spare” he said of his sister-in-law. Mr. Beres said it was the second time that his sister-in-law had escaped from a fire, recalling that she had lost her New York City loft to fire about 25 years ago.
Mr. Beres said his brother’s house was of modular construction and he said that may have played a role in how fast the fire spread.
“Those laminated floor joists will burn through in six minutes because they use so much glue,” he said.
Mr. Beres described his brother as “a happening, ‘60s, post-modern artist” and said he hoped something positive could come out of his death.
“People should be made aware that that kind of construction can burn quickly,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have fire extinguishers.”
Chief Horsburgh said he would give the same advice, adding “Make sure you’ve got plenty of smoke alarms and CO detectors.”