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In my sunset years, I opted to become a volunteer firefighter, the oldest rookie in the known history of the Southampton, NY, Fire Department, protecting greater Southampton, on Long Island’s East End, since 1881. At 68 years young, I whipped through the classroom stuff and survived the hands-on boot camp at the Fire Academy at Yaphank. A crisp certificate carrying the signature of the governor of New York qualifies me to enter a burning structure – prudently on hands and knees and burdened, like my brothers and occasional sisters, with 62 pounds of gear: the thick tan turnout coat and pants; those clumsy rough leather gloves; the helmet, facemask and air tank, right down to the heavy rubber boots with steel inserts in the soles.
But that’s not my job. With due allowance for aging knees and diminishing flexibility, I am fire police. Mainly, we control traffic at a fire or accident scene. Though I take the obligation most seriously (one year I answered 141 calls, albeit the vast majority trivial), I’m accustomed to describing the experience as something of a lark. By my bemused telling, I am an aging Don Quixote. Jocular or not, I do understand that the fire service holds life or death in its hands. A sobering thought.
It is Jan. 26, a frigid midwinter evening. I am standing in the intersection of Hillcrest Avenue and North Sea Road in Southampton Village. Half a block up Hillcrest, two dozen firefighters are trying to knock down a blazing fire in a modest house on the north side of the street, just down from the church. An 81-year-old man fell asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand.
That half block of Hillcrest is clogged with two fire engines and two hook-and-ladder trucks, the three fire chiefs’ SUVs, a couple of police cars and the Southampton Volunteer Ambulance. Lines of five-inch hose snake up the hill from the hydrant down at my corner. Three more trucks are parked along North Sea Road, having dispatched their crews to the front. From this distance I can see a couple of the hook-and-ladder guys dousing the building from above, working from the elevated aerial bucket, probably pushing 400 or 500 gallons a minute. The fire, which began on the ground floor, whooshed up the staircase, a natural chimney.
As wet equipment freezes, the guys at the scene are fighting both flames and ice, as though nature has marshaled its most malevolent forces in unholy alliance. The sheer violence of that combination is enough to humble anyone. On this particular evening, we go to the mat with nature – and nature wins, exacting a mortal toll.
Our guys are in the front door quickly, groping through the smoke and the heat for the victim. (Later, three – Ted Duffey, Dean McNamara and Jason Poremba – will be commended for valor.) They find the old man on the floor, slumped against the kitchen door, overcome before he could get out. He’s not a slight load; eight or nine guys strain to hustle him out of the house and into the waiting ambulance. The ambulance tears off. The old man never revives.
Not knowing any better, I expect that our department would have experienced such a tragedy maybe every five or six years. Not so, the long-serving guys tell me later. They’ve pulled people out of burning buildings, they’ve seen death close hand in traffic accidents, but this loss of a human life to a blazing fire was the first in memory. Though Chief Joe Corr later applauds the search team’s work as a “good get” – they found and extracted the victim within minutes – the death was traumatic for the entire department.
My young friend Paul Mayo, part of the search team, also tells me later of groping around the ground floor, crawling, straining, unable to see in the smoke. For a brief time, there was a scary report that the man’s sister was also at home when the blaze erupted. On hands and knees, probing with a tool, Paul poked and prodded his way into nooks and crannies and corners and under beds. Paul, a new father, was making sure his search didn’t overlook a child.