For hours upon hours every year, local volunteer firefighters train for worst-case scenarios. They prepare for smoke-filled houses and out of control fires. They drill again and again how to handle each type of emergency call — hoping they won’t have to answer one anytime soon.
Nearly a year ago, on Jan. 29, 2015, that kind of worst-case scenario training was put to use.
Just before 11:30 p.m. that Thursday night, the Riverhead Fire Department was called to a house on Middle Road. The home was billowing smoke and was covered by feet of snow. As the crews headed to the scene, a dispatcher relayed the vital information: a person may be trapped inside.
Working together, the volunteers on scene and two assistant chiefs worked to blast down the blaze while four firefighters — ex-chief Steve Beal, ex-captains J.R. Renten and Kevin Burgess and firefighter Anthony Chiaramonte — burst through the door and began searching.
That team’s heroic actions would save a man’s life and mark the first successful rescue from a burning building by a Riverhead firefighter in at least 20 years. The four firefighters’ quick response has also earned them honors as the Riverhead News-Review’s People of the Year for 2015.
“They’re four great guys,” said Riverhead assistant fire chief Kevin Brooks “Absolutely great job. It was a team effort all the way around.”
“They went in and they made the rescue and they did a great job,” added Fire Chief Joseph Raynor.
The call started like many others, with a blaring “tone-out” from dispatchers to the firefighters’ beepers, warning them of a structure fire just east of Roanoke Avenue. A 7-year-old girl living at the house had called 911 to report the fire, Mr. Brooks said.
“Thank God for the little girl that gave us that information,” he said.
The fire department found heavy smoke pouring from the building and a lock on the back door. The first firefighters on the scene were also hampered by feet of heavy snow left behind by a recent winter blizzard, Mr. Brooks said.
One team of firefighters smashed a window and pushed a firehose nozzle into the kitchen area to douse the fire. Assistant chief Tim Corwin and Mr. Brooks coordinated the effort at the back door, while assistant chief Pete Jackman made sure water was flowing through the hoses.
“We could see the fire rolling in the kitchen … rolling through the window,” Mr. Brooks said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Beal, Mr. Renten, Mr. Burgess and Mr. Chiaramonte split into two teams to crawl on the floor of the smoke-filled room and sweep the area for victims.
Mr. Renten was the first to discover the victim — 30-year-old Matej Petrak was unconscious on the couch. He called for help, and the other three firefighters helped drag the man through two narrow doorways and out of the burning house. Riverhead ambulance volunteers worked with the firefighters and immediately took Mr. Petrak to a nearby hospital.
The entire rescue took less than two minutes.
Mr. Petrak was airlifted from Peconic Bay Medical Center to the intensive care unit at Stony Brook University Hospital for treatment of burns and smoke inhalation, authorities said. He underwent four days of treatment before being released, a source with knowledge of the situation said.
Mr. Petrak did not respond to the News-Review’s requests for an interview.
The rescue of a victim from a burning structure was a rare incident for the Riverhead Fire Department, Mr. Raynor said. Fire prevention and fire safety training among citizens means fewer victims become trapped in fires — and fewer opportunities for rescues.
Mr. Beal, Mr. Renten, Mr. Burgess and Mr. Chiaramonte seized their opportunity, Mr. Brooks said.
“I can’t remember the last time someone came in and made a grab,” he said. “That’s why you train. You train and train and train. That makes everything come together. That’s the payoff.”
The firefighters represented different levels of experience within the department. Mr. Beal is “one of the most knowledgeable people in the department when it comes to firefighting,” with decades of experience under his belt, Mr. Raynor said.
Mr. Brooks said Mr. Beal is “totally dedicated” to the department and takes an active role in training other volunteers.
Mr. Raynor described Mr. Renten, second in seniority among the four, and Mr. Burgess as being very active in the department and “very aggressive” firefighters, meaning they take quick steps to put out fires.
“I’d go anywhere with these guys,” Mr. Brooks added.
Mr. Chiaramonte had just become a fully-fledged firefighter at the time of the rescue, having recently completed his time as a probationary member, Mr. Brooks said.
“He put his best foot forward,” Mr. Brooks said. “He was in the right place at the right time.”
But while both chiefs praised the actions of the four firefighters who saved Mr. Petrak’s life, both Mr. Raynor and Mr. Brooks said the entire operation was a team effort. Without the help of the other volunteers, the rescue could have gone much differently.
“This was a very, very good coordinated effort from the time the phone rang,” Mr. Brooks said. “Those guys made the save, but somebody had to drive them there, somebody had to vent that roof, somebody had to put water on that fire … Everybody that night did their job to allow this to happen.”
Photo Caption: Ex-Chief Steve Beal (from left), firefighter Anthony Chiaramonte, Ex-Captain J.R. Renten and Ex-Captain Kevin Burgess, who rescued an unconscious man from a burning home last January. (Credit: Paul Squire, file)
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