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Riverhead Fire Department to honor girl for her quick action during fire

Fourth-grader Jenifer Ponce sat with classmates at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School in October, listening as members of the Riverhead Fire Department taught them how to handle an emergency call.

Bill Sanok, the department’s public information officer, shared the story of a young girl whose 911 call helped save a life two years ago, when a fire broke out in a first-floor apartment on Middle Road in Riverhead.

That girl was Jenifer.

At first, she thought Mr. Sanok was talking about a different fire, but when she heard him say a 7-year-old girl was on the call, she knew he was talking about her.

“Oh my God, it’s me,” she thought.

Half her class also knew the story and began pointing to her excitedly, she said. She was a bit embarrassed, with her classmates all turning to look at her, but Jenifer, now 10, said she feels proud of herself.

Jenifer will be honored next week at the fire department’s annual gala with a plaque and a proclamation.

Her heroics began on the night of Jan. 29, 2015. Just before 11:30 p.m., Jenifer’s mother, Gilma Garcia, woke her daughter and 6-month-old son, Joshua, in their second-floor apartment, having smelled smoke coming from the apartment below.

“My mom woke me up and told us to hurry up, to get out of the house,” Jenifer said.

Ms. Garcia, who does not speak English fluently, dialed 911 and handed the phone to her daughter. She could not waste any time waiting for someone to translate, she explained.

“I was pretty nervous about it,” Jenifer recalled, but she remembered the fire safety tips she’d learned just a week earlier at her previous school, Cutchogue East Elementary.

Remembering that it was important to keep her cool, she reported that smoke was coming from the back of the house and gave the dispatcher the address. But the critical information she provided was that there was a man still inside the home, Riverhead Fire Department Chief Kevin Brooks said.

Mr. Sanok said the dispatcher later told him she knew immediately that “it wasn’t some kid fooling around.”

It’s a testament to the training local fire prevention crews give each year at the schools, the chief said, adding that the children “take heed” of what they’re learning.

“She learned what to do concerning 911 in fire prevention and then she had the presence of mind to do the right thing under extraordinary circumstances when the house was on fire,” Mr. Brooks said.

Jenifer said she learned it’s important to know what to do in those situations.

“You can buy another bed or more clothes, but what’s most important is that you get out of the house as soon as possible,” she said.

The family quickly left the house, barefoot and unharmed. Jenifer recalled that ice on the porch stung like fire under her feet. Emergency crews arrived quickly, after just two minutes, and began to extinguish the fire in the first-floor apartment’s kitchen while two firefighters pulled a man, who was unconscious on a living room couch, from the house.

Meanwhile, an ambulance arrived and took Jenifer and her family to Peconic Bay Medical Center for a routine medical evaluation. The department had hoped to track her down a few months later to thank her for her actions, but were unsure where the family had moved after the fire.

“I think it’s important to reward people for doing outstanding things,” Mr. Brooks said.

In October, after Mr. Sanok and fire commissioner Dennis Hamill completed their fire safety presentation, a boy in the class at Roanoke Avenue told them, “She’s here. She’s in the class.”

It was almost destined to happen, serendipity, Mr. Sanok said.

Ms. Garcia said she’s proud of her daughter and happy that everyone got out alive that January night. She thanks the fire department for seeking out her daughter to honor her.

The department told Jenifer it was a good thing that she did.

“It feels very nice knowing that you saved someone’s life, that because of you they’re alive right now,” she said.

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Photo: From left, Jenifer Ponce with her 2-year-old brother, Joshua Garcia, and mother, Gilma Garcia. The Riverhead Fire Department will honor Jenifer next week for her quick action during a house fire. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)