Tuesday’s Town Board meeting agenda was full of the usual first-meeting-of-the-year business, with one exception.
Like others throughout the community, town officials were in shock over the death of former councilman John Romanelli, who died early Tuesday morning four days after suffering extensive burns during an accident at his Southold fuel oil business. He was 47.
“I’m shocked and sad. John’s an old friend,” said Supervisor Scott Russell, who was only 17 when he first met Mr. Romanelli. “We’d heard that he was doing better.”
He added, “He gave his heart and soul to Southold Town. Even when you disagreed with him it was impossible to be mad at him. I mourn his loss.”
Councilman Bill Ruland pondered how quickly an ordinary day in someone’s life can take a tragic turn.
“Life hangs by a thread,” he said. “It really does.”
Mr. Romanelli was using a torch to thaw a frozen pipe at his business, Burt’s Reliable on Youngs Avenue in Southold, as a truckload of biofuel, a mixture of petroleum and plant-based oil, was being pumped into a tank. When a crack opened in the line, about 20 gallons of fuel sprayed out and were ignited by the torch. Mr. Romanelli was engulfed in a flash fire and suffered extensive burns to the front of his body.
He was airlifted to Stony Brook University Medical Center and placed in intensive care in its burn unit, where he died at about 3:20 a.m. Tuesday.
“Unfortunately, John’s injuries were far too extensive despite the incredible efforts of the doctors and nurses of Stony Brook University Hospital and John’s fearless battle to survive,” his brother, Paul Romanelli, said in a statement Tuesday morning.
“People will ask why for a long time,” Mr. Ruland added. “Sometimes there’s no answer.”
Mr. Romanelli is survived by his wife, Heather; his two children, Ethan and Tara; his parents; and brothers Paul, of Cutchogue, the owner of Suffolk Security, and Martin.
Visiting hours were held from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday and will continue from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. today at Coster-Heppner Funeral Home on Main Road in Cutchogue. A service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church of Southold, with Pastor Peter Kelley officiating. Interment will be private.
The family asks that donations be made to Eastern Long Island Hospital or the Stony Brook University Medical Center burn unit.
A native of Farmingdale, Mr. Romanelli graduated from high school there in 1982. While in high school he earned Eagle Scout honors, the Boy Scouts’ highest rank.
He attended York College in Pennsylvania but left to work for his family’s plumbing and heating business. After years of summering in Mattituck, he became a full-time Southold resident in 1988. That year he became the owner of Burt’s Reliable.
The Suffolk Times named Mr. Romanelli its business person of the year for 2008. He earned praise for stepping forward to help provide new heating and air conditioning at the now restored Brecknock Hall mansion at Peconic Landing in Greenport.
“The price we paid him — it’s almost embarrassing,” said former councilwoman Alice Hussie, who served on the Town Board with Mr. Romanelli. She took on the Brecknock Hall project as she left office. “He was always a giver, never a taker,” Ms. Hussie added.
He also came to the aid of Greenport’s American Legion post in 2001 when the building’s boiler went and he kept the heat going at far below market price.
Bob Ghosio, a town Trustee and manager of Burt’s Reliable, called Mr. Romanelli “my best friend and confidant. He was a brilliant businessman and a visionary in our industry. John’s million-dollar smile and caring nature is renowned in our community, and his charity and love for all people will be missed more than words can portray.”
Mr. Romanelli was elected to the Town Board in 1997 and served two four-year terms. His political career came to an end with his 2003 loss to then-incumbent supervisor Josh Horton.
Before running for supervisor, Mr. Romanelli became an outspoken proponent of moving to five-acre zoning. Most of Southold’s open lands, including much of the agricultural core, is covered by two-acre zoning.
During a 2003 campaign debate shortly before Election Day, Mr. Romanelli pointed to the changes along Riverhead’s Route 58 as evidence of the continuing eastward push of suburbia.
“The overdevelopment that has taken over Long Island is now at our doorsteps and we must act now,” he said.
But Mr. Romanelli’s plan enjoyed little if any support within the agricultural community and divided his Republican Party. Leading the Democratic ticket, Mr. Horton easily won a second term.
Mr. Horton remembered Mr. Romanelli as possessing “a pioneer’s spirit that was rich with compassion, kindness, guts and character. He had an open mind, an enormous heart and he saw the world through his own colorful lens.”
Mr. Horton added, “He viewed challenges as opportunities to grow, the needs of others as his own to take on and happiness as not something to strive for but rather a way of consistently being through good times and bad. I am proud to have served in public office with him, but more importantly I am blessed to have had John as a friend.”
Leslie Weisman, chair of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, described Mr. Romanelli as a generous, community-spirited man with a great sense of humor.
“His death is a great loss to community,” she said. Mr. Romanelli was equally generous with his public service, she added, serving with her on the Southold Hamlet Stakeholders committee. He was also caring of his customers, to whom he often extended credit, she said.