In my sunset years I opted to become a volunteer fire fighter, the oldest rookie in the known history of Southampton Fire Department, protecting greaterSouthamptonsince 1881. At 68 years young, I whipped through the classroom stuff and survived the hands-on boot camp at theFireAcademyat Yaphank. A crisp certificate signed by 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, with62 poundsof gear: the thick tan turnout coat and pants; those rough leather gloves; the helmet, face mask and air tank, right down to 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 Thursday, January 26th, a frigid midwinter evening. I am standing in the intersection ofHillcrest AvenueandNorth Sea Road, inSouthamptonVillage. 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 alongNorth Sea Road, having dispatched their crews to the front. From this distance I can see a couple of “truckies” – the hook and ladder guys — dousing the building from above, working from the elevated aerial basket, probably pushing 400 or500 gallonsa minute. The fire, which began on the ground floor, whooshed up the staircase, a natural chimney.
As wet equipment freezes, the guys 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 very best guys are in the front door quickly, groping through the smoke and the heat for the victim. (Later, three — Dean McNamara, Jason Poremba and Ted Duffey – 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 in traffic accidents, but this loss of a human soul to a blazing fire was the first in memory. The death was traumatic for the entire department.
My young friend Paul Mayo, part of the search team, tells me later of groping around the ground floor, crawling, straining, unable to see in the smoke. On hands and knees, probing with a tool, he poked and prodded into nooks and crannies and corners and under beds. Paul, a new father, was making damned sure his search didn’t overlook a child.
Half a block away, I don’t learn that sad history until the next day.
With one notable exception, it’s my job to remain on the periphery of the fire scene, blocking streets, redirecting traffic, keeping it moving, protecting the fire ground from intruders, well-meaning or not. (Onemidnightwe were nearly knocked down when a woman whipped her car around the corner and upMoses Laneto the fire. “That’s my house,” she cried as she stepped on the gas.)