The Night Capt. Ben’s Restaurant Burned, by Jimmy Creech

Capt. Ben’s Waterfront Restaurant was established by Ocracoker Ben Mugford in the early 1970s. Situated on the end of a dock overlooking Silver Lake harbor, across the road from the Harborside Motel, the restaurant quickly gained a reputation for excellent cuisine, spectacular sunset views, and colorful native island cooks and wait staff. Unfortunately, the restaurant burned to the ground in a fire in 1977.The enthusiastic but woefully untrained and disorganized volunteer fire department was unable to extinguish the fire before it became a conflagration. Although no one was injured or died, it was a sad day for Ben and his family, and for the entire Ocracoke community. It was, however, a wake-up call for islanders.

In 2016 Jimmy Creech wrote the following account of that awful night, and the beginning of a new era that today boasts a well-trained and well-equipped volunteer fire department (https://www.ocracokevfd.org/).

The Night Capt. Ben’s Restaurant Burned

By Jimmy Creech
March 2016

When Capt. Ben’s Restaurant burned to the ground, I was the pastor at the Ocracoke United Methodist Church.

There was no organized volunteer fire department at the time. We had an old fire truck, an old army surplus equipment truck, a collection of second-hand boots, coats, overalls and helmets, and a two-bay building to house it all. Womac was the fire chief, but no one ever showed up for the training he scheduled once a month. I certainly never had training! It wasn’t required back then – whoever showed up for a fire was welcome! Whenever the sirens went off, most always for brush fires started by discarded cigarettes thrown from passing cars on highway 12, we always had a good turnout and everything seemed to go well enough. Didn’t happen that way when Capt. Ben’s burned.

The sirens sounded shortly before midnight that Saturday. I jumped out of bed, pulled on a bathing suit and some sandals and ran to the fire hall. When I arrived, I discovered that those ahead of me couldn’t start the fire truck – the battery was dead. Someone tied his pickup to the fire truck with a rope and towed it down the back road toward Blackbeard’s Lodge. Once it was running, the driver drove the fire truck back to the fire hall to pick up those of us waiting to fight the fire. Word was there was a fire at Capt. Ben’s Restaurant.

While I waited for the fire truck to return to the fire hall, I put on a helmet, pair of overalls, coat and a pair of rubber boots, all much too large for me, but the best I could find. Don’t remember how many there were of us, but we all jumped on the fire truck as it came back by, siren blaring, and headed off down the back road toward Capt. Ben’s. As we passed cottages along the way, tourists, who had been partying, came running out to jump on the fire truck for the ride. Several young women in bikinis with beer in their hands joined us. Must have thought it would be something fun to do on a Saturday night, I guess.

When we pulled up in front of Capt. Ben’s, I jumped off, grabbed the nozzle, pulled the hose off the truck and ran with it toward smoke I saw coming out of a window at the rear of the restaurant on the edge of the lake. I stood at the window, smoke pouring out, and desperately yelled, “Water! Water! Water!” No water. The driver made the mistake of turning off the fire truck when he got to Capt. Ben’s and it wouldn’t start, so it couldn’t pump the water.

Capt. Ben's Fire, 1977Photo by Henry Raup (OPS Collection)
Capt. Ben’s Fire, 1977 Photo by Henry Raup (OPS Collection)

Suddenly, I realized the slack in the hose I was holding was fast disappearing – the fire truck was being towed again, and no one bothered to tell me. Not wanting to drop the nozzle and have it damaged by being dragged down the road around the lake, I took off running with it behind the fire truck, the much-too-large helmet bouncing on my head and my feet nearly coming out of the much-too-large rubber boots with every clomp along the road. The truck finally started about where Howard Street meets the paved road. The driver waited for me, pulled the hose in, then turned the fire truck around and headed back to Capt. Ben’s.

Again, I pulled the hose from the truck and headed back to where I saw the smoke before. Now, large flames were leaping out of the window. I turned on the nozzle and began spraying water through the window inside the restaurant. The flame just got larger, breaking through the roof and spreading throughout the building. To better get at the fire, I crawled beneath the back porch and began shooting a stream of water into the building through a gaping hole the fire had burned in the floor. Lying on my stomach, I aimed the water into the heart of the fire, hoping to knock it down.

In a few minutes, someone crawled under the porch next to me and said, “Jimmy, you’re getting everybody on the other side of street wet! Please lower the water!”

The crowd of people who came to see the fire stood across the street from Capt. Ben’s. Lying on my stomach beneath the opposite side of the building from the onlookers, I wasn’t just shooting water up at the burning structure, I was shooting it through the flames into the air and onto the people standing across the street.

Someone else crawled under the building next to me with an air pack for me to use to protect me from all the smoke I was inhaling. I put on the facemask, but couldn’t figure out how to put the tank on my back or how to turn the air on. So, I gave up and sent it back out. I learned later that I had the air tank upside down.

When it was obvious the fire had complete control of the building and there was no way to extinguish it, I crawled out and began to spray water on two large fuel oil tanks on the adjacent property while what was left of Capt. Ben’s burned. We didn’t want the heat to cause the tanks to rupture or explode.

Capt. Ben’s burned completely to the ground. At sunrise, after spraying water on the smoking debris to extinguish all live embers, I walked to the parsonage and began preparing to lead worship later that morning.

Aftermath, Cat. Ben's Fire, 1977Photo by Henry Raup (OPS Collection)
Aftermath, Cat. Ben’s Fire, 1977 Photo by Henry Raup (OPS Collection)

The following Monday night, the Civic Club held a special meeting to discuss Capt. Ben’s Restaurant burning down. The room was packed with Ocockers and the atmosphere was tense. Ben Mugford was there, understandably angry at the incompetence of the “fire department.” There was a lot of finger pointing to put blame on someone for the debacle: the deputy sheriff who discovered the fire; Womac, the fire chief; the designated fire truck driver who failed to keep the battery charged; etc.

I spoke and said I was to blame because I had never gone to one of Womac’s training sessions. I said I knew when they were scheduled but just didn’t make the effort to go to them. I then described what happened at Capt. Ben’s (pretty much what I’ve written above, but with more details than I can now remember). As I told the story, the atmosphere began to relax with laughter breaking the tension.

When I finished, the Civic Club discussion moved away from pinning blame for the failure of the Volunteer Fire Department to organizing to make it better. We didn’t want another property on Ocracoke to burn to the ground because we didn’t know what we were doing. It was clear that Womac wasn’t getting support from the community and that he couldn’t make people come to training.

Womac said he was ready to retire from his position – he’d been trying to retire for years, but no one would step up to take his place. So, we elected David Fletcher to be fire chief and created a committee to develop policies and procedures for the fire department. Following that meeting, those wanting to be in the fire department met to elect officers. We scheduled training sessions to be led by expert trainers coming from Raleigh, and made it a requirement for everyone to participate in all training sessions in order to be members of the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department. We also began fundraising to purchase new equipment.

The fire at Capt. Ben’s Restaurant was a major loss and embarrassment for Ocracoke, but it also served to initiate a trained and professional volunteer fire department for the island.