Riverhead firefighter Ex-Captain J.R. Renten crawled on his hands and knees under a cloud of waist-high, obscuring smoke inside the burning house on Middle Road, circling around to the couch as his fellow firefighters sprayed down the kitchen.
The only lights inside were firefighters’ flashlights and the glow of a circular florescent lamp hanging on the wall by the bar.
Mr. Renten spotted something on the couch; at first, it looked like giant white pillow. He got close, close enough to see that the “pillow” was an overweight, unconscious man lying in a white T-shirt and sweatpants.
“He was face down on the couch,” Mr. Renten said Friday evening, a day after the fire. “I was yelling at him, ‘Fire Department! Fire Department! Wake up. Wake up.’ And he wouldn’t [answer].”
He yelled back through his respirator to his other firefighters: “Victim!”
The three other members of the Riverhead Fire Department search team — Ex-Captain Kevin Burgess, Ex-Chief Steve Beal and firefighter Anthony Chiaramonte — weren’t far behind.
“At that point when you grab a hold of him, you’re just hoping you’re getting him out quick enough and you made it in time,” Mr. Burgess said.
Within two minutes of getting into the house late Thursday night, the four men had dragged the victim out through two narrow doorways to safety. A woman and two small children also escaped the blaze unharmed, Riverhead Town police said.
The firefighters’ quick rescue of 30-year-old Matej Petrak surely saved the man’s life, fire officials would later say.
The “snatch and grab,” as one called it, was the first successful rescue of an unconscious person from a burning building in Riverhead in at least 20 years, first assistant Chief Kevin Brooks said Friday.
Third assistant chief Tim Corwin said the heat inside the home was enough to melt the plastic light fixtures and smoke detectors.
The firefighters who made the rescue said it “wasn’t bad.”
The fire started on the first floor of the Middle Road house just before 11:30 p.m., Riverhead police said. Riverhead detectives and Suffolk County Police Department’s Arson Squad determined the fire originated on the first-floor apartment’s kitchen stove.
Shanon Garcia-Donis and her children — a 7-year-old and 6-month-old — were all home in a second-floor apartment at the time. The 7-year-old called 911 to report the fire, pointing firefighters to where the fire was burning.
Mr. Burgess — an eight-year veteran of the fire department — knocked down the back door to get into the building. A team of firefighters went in first to douse the fire, with the four search team members right behind them.
After finding the unconscious man, the firefighters had to work together to carry the man out. They squeezed through two narrow doorways inside the smoke-filled house and eventually pulled the man to safety.
The four men had never had a successful save before. Mr. Renten said rescuing a victim is “something you dream about.” But when the time came to act, the firefighters didn’t have time to think about their heroics.
They just stuck to their training.
“There’s no thinking about it,” Mr. Renten said. “I yelled … and everything went into place after that.”