After 100 years, Riverhead Fire Department’s Eagles keep flying

12/10/2015 9:00 AM |

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For the first few years after Eagle Hose Company No. 4 was founded in October 1915, its members fought fires by pulling a two-wheeled cart with a hand-powered pump hose around the streets of Polish Town.

The company’s 12 charter members, all of Polish descent, held their first meetings — in Polish — at a home on what’s now the corner of Pulaski Street and Swezey Avenue.

A century later, the equipment has been updated: Eagle Hose shares a firehouse and four modern trucks with another company. Membership has grown from 12 to more than 30. But for a company with a deep connection to its own history, the Polish flavor remains.

Weeks after the company celebrated its official 100th birthday, almost all its members are still of Polish descent (though that is no longer a requirement), according to Mike Panchak, Eagle Hose’s current captain.

“Fighting fires is different than it was 40 years ago, but the company is built the same,” he said. “It still has the same camaraderie. It still has the same fathers and sons and uncles and nephews and brothers and brothers-in-law.”

Five of those men have been with Eagle Hose for more than 50 years — and about half of all the 50-year veterans in the entire Riverhead Volunteer Fire Department come from Eagle Hose, even though there are five other companies, Mr. Panchak said.

One such lifelong firefighter is Calverton resident Larry Taylor. At age 84, the half-Polish Mr. Taylor is in his 60th year as an active member of Eagle Hose. He still attends all the meetings and he responded to a call as recently as “two or three years” ago to assist however he could.

“You’re still a fireman,” he said. “That’s the way it’s looked at.”

Several Eagle Hose members praised the company’s “camaraderie” and Mr. Panchak said having so many longtime veterans present is a boon for today’s recruits.

“It keeps everything more Polish, more family-oriented,” he said.

In fact, as recently as three years ago, the company had three active members — Stanley Zambriski, John Kobylenski and Frank Sendlewski — whose fathers had been among the founding charter members, according to Joe Pipczynski, who joined the company himself in 1957.

All three of those members died within the past three years, Mr. Pipczynski said, but their service is an indication of the company’s tight-knit community, partially driven by young men following their fathers or uncles into the department.

“In those days, if you were in the Eagles, that was it,” Mr. Pipczynski said. “One for all and all for one.”

During their early years, the Eagles bounced around Polish Town. They began at the home of Leo Zamrbiski, the organization’s foreman, before moving to a Pulaski Street building in 1917, where they stayed for seven more years.

The company spent more than three decades at what is now the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Hamilton Avenue. Around 1930, the firefighters finally acquired a hose truck, and in 1947, they got their first Seagrave pumper, Mr. Taylor said.

In 1958, Eagle Hose moved down the street to the newly constructed Station One, which it shares today with Ever Ready Engine Company No. 3.

Several current Eagles recall growing up in Polish Town and seeing the firefighters around town, including Peter Bilski, who was a member for more than 35 years before moving to Florida in 1995. His father and two uncles were Eagle Hose members, and now his nephew is, too.

“When I was a kid, the fire truck used to come down when they had a fire some place down the end of Hamilton,” Mr. Bilski said. “They would stop and my dad would jump on the truck. They’d pick him up and go to the fire.”

For some, though, the most attractive part of Eagle Hose is its storied success in friendly competitions.

(Credit: Chris Lisinski)

(Credit: Chris Lisinski)

The entire back wall of the firehouse’s meeting room is a glass case filled with artifacts and trinkets of various ages: a worn black fire helmet; a two-foot “key” that appears to be made of construction paper; a framed picture of an old hand-drawn pump cart. More than anything, though, the case is packed with dozens of trophies and accolades for firefighter races, bowling competitions and baseball tournaments over the years.

Originally known as the “Flying Eagles,” the firefighters of Eagle Hose became an integral part of the Riverhead Ironmen in 1935. During that early era, Mr. Pipcznyski estimated that “95 percent” of the Ironmen were Eagle Hose members.

The Ironmen would go on to win the New York State Firemen’s Association Tournaments — essentially the state championship for firefighter races — in 1935, 1936, 1938 and 1948, according to the RFD’s 150th anniversary pamphlet.

“The Ironmen were the draw,” Mr. Pipczynski said. “That’s what motivated Louis [Waski] and myself to join.”

Mr. Bilski was once a captain of the Ironmen. So was his brother, William, who also rose up to chief of the Riverhead Volunteer Fire Department. And then there’s Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Taylor was captain of the Ironmen in the mid-1950s, and was part of an undefeated three-man ladder team with his brother Bob Taylor and Bill Brooks, who died last week.

“We were tied once, but we were never beaten,” he said. “We won a lot of tournaments.”

A picture of the three from the summer of 1955 — young, chiseled faces squinting into the sun, holding a first-place trophy in the county three-ladder race — sits inside the firehouse’s display case, alongside several other trophies bearing Mr. Taylor’s name.

No stranger to accolades, Mr. Taylor also won Riverhead’s Firefighter of the Year award in 1997. That year, he was off-duty when a man collapsed at the American Legion.

“He fell to the floor and had no pulse, so I performed CPR,” Mr. Taylor recalled. “By the time 911 got there, I already had him back.”

Most members of the 50-year club served as captain at some point. Mr. Taylor did two years in that position in 1970 and 1971, and remembers a railroad fire during that time as the most intense of his career.

“The railroad was making a hitch and it came off the tracks,” he said. “Something pierced the tank and the gas came out and it lit. That fire, you had to stay there and just cool the tank so the tank would not blow. You just kept pouring water on it until it burned itself out.”

This was before oxygen packs were common, so Mr. Taylor said firefighters had to come up with other ways to keep themselves safe on scene.

“If we were in there fighting that fire and all around us was smoke, we’d put our noses by the nozzle [of the hose] because the water would bring out oxygen,” he said.

The Eagle Hose Company has contributed plenty of success to the Riverhead department in its 100-year history. Today, Mr. Pipczynski said, three of the fire district’s five fire commissioners rose through the ranks at Eagle Hose: William Kelly Sr., John Tradeski Jr. and chairman of the board Edward Carey Jr. Kevin Brooks, the department’s first assistant chief and son of Bill Brooks, was an Eagle, too.

“The Eagles are very instrumental in having people go into the department,” Mr. Pipczynski said. “They’re very good for Riverhead.”

The company celebrated an early birthday in January with a ceremony at Polish Hall. Local leaders, including Supervisor Sean Walter and Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, attended to praise 100 years of service for Riverhead and for Polish Town.

It was also a chance for company members to take stock of exactly what Eagle Hose means to them.

“I’m very, very, very proud to be an Eagle,” Mr. Pipczynski said. “I hope the day I leave this earth that I’ll be buried as an Eagle.”

Twenty years after he moved down south, Mr. Bilski still tries to return to Riverhead about once a year to visit.

“Besides my wife and my daughter, belonging to the fire department was probably the third-best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “You put your heart and soul into it when you’re there, and when you leave — other people, maybe they can distance themselves from it, but not me.”

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