HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON — His friendly smile was legendary, but Robert Schnibbe Jr. was much more than just someone who was fun to be around.
He was the "go-to man" in this close-knit village along the Hudson — the volunteer firefighter who always made things happen, whether it was the annual senior citizens picnic or regular fire safety programs.
Yesterday, that spirit was remembered even as his colleagues struggled to deal with the shock of his death. The gregarious 57-year-old collapsed at the scene of a house fire Friday night in Irvington, dead from an apparent heart attack. The fire was in a two-story home under construction and no one was inside.
"How else does a fireman go? This is the life," said Hastings First Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Bannon, breaking down in tears as he spoke of his friend, a 39-year member who spent 24 years as chief officer of the department.
Schnibbe collapsed at the scene of the fire he was directing at 1 Blueberry Road as he was returning to his car. He was pronounced dead at Community Hospital at Dobbs Ferry at 9:30 p.m. The cause was a coronary blockage, the Westchester County Medical Examiner's Office said.
The death marks the first in-the-line-of-duty fatality in Hastings in at least two decades, said Fire Chief Stephen Pecylak.
Schnibbe is the third volunteer firefighter from the Hastings department who has died in the past year, upsetting firefighters and the community. Charlie Murray, a 29-year-old village worker, died in August of a heart illness and former Village Manager Neil Hess died of cancer in October.
"You never know what will happen," said fellow firefighter Joe Perillo. "Bob was the guy you went to. He was the reason many of us are here."
Schnibbe was appointed chief of Battalion 14 of Westchester County in 2003, responsible for coordinating mutual aid operations in Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, Elmsford, Ardsley, Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow.
Black-and-white bunting hung outside his Warburton Avenue company yesterday afternoon and a flag was lowered to half-staff. Inside, there were tears and hugs.
"If there was anything in the 14th Battalion, he was there," said J.P. Natkin, Irvington first assistant chief.
Firefighters recalled how Schnibbe proudly led parades and undertook many tasks in the department.
"He had a great smile and was our go-to man," said Pecylak, the department's current chief.
"We get together like a family to get through this. It's our turn to pull ourselves up for him," Bannon added.
Hastings Mayor Lee Kinnally described Schnibbe's death as a great loss.
"He was the heart and soul of (the fire) department," he said yesterday. "Bob was the fire department. But his roots go deep in the entire community."
Rotary Club President Tom Minozzi said he was "totally shocked" to hear of the death of Schnibbe, a past president of the club encompassing Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, Ardsley and Irvington.
"Bob was one of the best," he said. "He exemplified the motto of Rotary, service above self, and was a poster boy of those words."
An annual picnic for senior citizens always ran smoothly because of Schnibbe, who was also known for promoting fire safety programs in the community, Minozzi said.
This month, Schnibbe attended the 130-year anniversary celebration of Fire Protection Company No. 1, his home base, and wrote a history of the Hastings organization, which appears on its Web site.
"We are extremely proud of our heritage and try to preserve our history as best we can," he wrote. "(The current department is) as strong as those 'young men' who met, organized, and pledged over 130 years ago 'protection' to the lives and property of the residents of our community."
He is survived by his wife, Jean; daughter, Jennifer; son, Brian; son-in-law, Brad Cummings; stepson, Mike Bloomer; brother, Thomas; sister, Margie Schnibbe; and mother, Anne.
Funeral plans had not been finalized.
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03-05-2006, 08:58 AM #1
Colleagues mourn loss of fire chiefYou need only two tools: WD-40 and duct tape. If it doesn't move and it should, use WD-40. If it moves and shouldn't, use the duct tape.
03-05-2006, 02:05 PM #2
From what I understand, this man was one of the most respected men in the area, and very well liked. Its a shame those ones always go first.Proud East Coast Traditionalist.
03-05-2006, 07:42 PM #3You need only two tools: WD-40 and duct tape. If it doesn't move and it should, use WD-40. If it moves and shouldn't, use the duct tape.
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