Portside Grill Fire and the Beauty of the Bar Harbor Community

I wrote this a few years ago, but it remains one of my most endearing and enduring images of this beautiful town. It’s about how we are such a community. Always. 


Normally, I love my town a lot. It’s a tiny tourist-focused town in Downeast Maine on the coast. Every year hundreds of thousands of people flock here, checking out the mountains and the hiking and the kayaking and the whale watching and Diver Ed.


But yesterday, I was walking to the grocery store in my bright blue hoodie and white skirt, clutching my disposable grocery bag, and basically trotting down the sidewalk, happy and oblivious. A friend texts me that “walking and texting can result in walking into poles.” I laugh. This is true for me, especially. Everyone knows that. I am pretty happy, but then the people from away approach.


They are very metro-dressed, all perfectly coiffed, all in dark colors and well-fitting clothes. They stare at me. And the look they give me is what I call: DISGUST. Or maybe, DOES SHE HAVE SOMETHING CONTAGIOUS?


And I feel? Dehumanized. I wish I could re-enact this look for you so you could understand it. Maybe there’s a gif, actually.

That is the look. And I am super sensitive, so all of me is just sort of crushed inside, but then I saw Tim Searchfield playing football on the lawn of his bed and breakfast, and we talk about our kids and I feel slightly human again. But I didn’t tell him about the DISGUST look because I was too horrified.


Then I saw Vicki Hall, the owner of the Portside Grill. Vicki is a smiley person. She is a safe person. She was also walking her dog and if I talk to her, I will totally get to pet her dog. So I blurted out my whole story, all the insecurity, everything and I sounded like I was in fourth grade.


And what did Vicki do?


She listened.


She told me that it was okay, that those people were ridiculous and that I was not disgust-worthy.


She made me a bit more human again, a bit stronger. She talked about work at her restaurant, her hurt knee, how excited she was about November when she could hang out at a beach and have a vacation.


And we left each other and went on with our late afternoons. She saved my hurt insides because she cared.


A couple hours later her business was on fire. A couple hours later her business, her workers’ jobs were gone.

The Portside Grill was on lower Cottage Street in Bar Harbor. The buildings are close together down there, sometimes touching. They are older, usually, and wooden, usually. There are propane tanks in alleys. There are apartments above the businesses.

And the Portside was on fire.


At least seven fire departments responded. Most of our area firefighters are volunteers. Some stayed all night, working, making sure that fire didn’t spread. I am not much of a firefighter, at all. Basically, I am the lowest and least trained, the weakest and least knowledgeable. All I got to do was move people away, take pictures to make sure everything was documented, and to occasionally help in tiny bits. I did this little tiny bit and still when I went home I was sick from the smoke. I was sick for hours.

But the other people?

They were big time heroes. They were the put-your-life-on-the line heroes. They were the fighters who didn’t look back, who just did.

And that is why I love Bar Harbor (despite the occasionally evil visitors. To be fair, most visitors are awesome).

I love Bar Harbor because:

I had to prop up one firefighter as I walked him to the recovery area after he was in the building. This is a strapping guy. He is fit. He worked so hard he could barely stand. He recovered. He went back in again.

He did because he cared.


People from all sorts of restaurants brought food and drink for the firefighters as they worked all night. Pizza. Chicken wings. Protein bars. Water. Gatorade. They set up tables. They wanted to do more.

They did because they cared.

Cops cordoned off the streets, stood there in thick-can’t-see smoke with no protective gear and just did it. A police sergeant pushed water bottles into firefighters’ hands as they staggered up the alley towards the recovery center.

One firefighter said, “That Farrar. He knew just what I needed. Just shoved that water into my hand. God, what a life-savor. Love that guy.”

The cops did it because they cared.

People were offering pet-care, food, places to stay, jobs for the displaced workers and now homeless people. People were offering everything they can.

They did because they cared.

Fancy hotels took homeless residents in for the night. At least the night.

They did because they cared.


People like Vicki who just lost her business is spending most of her time, pleading for jobs for her workers.

She is doing that because she cares. Same way she cared about me during my tiny emotional crisis. She cares. So. Much.


Firefighters sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY to one of the ambulance attendants at 1 a.m.

They did because they cared.


Firefighters went into a building to get a woman’s medication.

They didn’t have to. They did because they cared.


A police sgt. tried to calm a comforting child who had been sleeping in an upstairs apartment when the fire started and he tried so hard to help that child that multiple people pulled me aside to tell me about it.

They did because they cared. He did because he cared.


Firefighters turned the knobs on each other’s breathing tanks, helped hoist them on, verified that they were full with enough air over and over again. Firefighters climbed ladders and roofs, entered burning buildings, walked down streets so thick with smoke that you couldn’t see.  EMTs checked vital signs, breathing, hydration, body heat. Firefighters stayed throughout the night protecting that street even after the fire was taken down. These were the same firefighters who just sent their kids off to school for the first time that day. Firefighters and EMTs who need places to live, who can sometimes barely scrap rent and food money together themselves.

Volunteers. Full-timers. People.

They did because they care. They do it because they care.


I am so proud of the people in my community. They bicker over politics. They fight about town managers and property lines, land use ordinances, parking, development and occasionally the school,  but when it matters? When it really matters?

They care.


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