Questions raised about January fire rescue

Last week’s Liberty Medal ceremony in Riverhead is being overshadowed by a news report citing unsubstantiated accusations against the two local firefighters who were honored. The claims state that the two may have inflated their roles in the January evacuation of two elderly women from a burning two-story building in Polish Town. The medal is the highest civilian honor conferred by the New York State Senate.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar was caught on a “hot mic” during a Town Board work session last Thursday telling two council members that she declined an invitation to the ceremony after hearing that the two Riverhead firefighters may have exaggerated their roles in the rescue, a development first reported by the community news website RiverheadLocal, which also published the original story about the pair’s heroics.

“I’m not going to that,” Ms. Aguiar can be heard saying about the ceremony at the work session, which was videotaped. “Do you know the circumstance of that? They never — yeah, everybody was out and they made all these claims in the newspaper. So the community in Pulaski is up in arms about it.”

In a statement Monday, the supervisor said “the fire was an unfortunate incident that became gravely political. The victims of the fire should not have to relive the monumental loss and trauma. My personal apologies to the entire Polish community.”

A staffer in state Sen. Anthony Palumbo’s office said the nomination of the firefighters was based on the original RiverheadLocal story.

In January, veteran Riverhead volunteer firefighters William “J.R.” Renten and Frank Greenwood, who had been working on a nearby highway department road repair, told the Riverhead News-Review after the fire that they rushed twice into the burning building without fire equipment to save the lives of two elderly Polish immigrants — longtime tenants in the two-story structure on Pulaski Street.

Mr. Renten did not attend the medal ceremony and did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday, while Mr. Greenwood, who did attend, declined comment when reached by phone.

“I’m not sure why the town supervisor would say that,” Mr. Greenwood told RiverheadLocal last week after learning about Ms. Aguiar’s comments. “It’s disappointing to hear that she is questioning myself and J.R.’s integrity and actions. However, I know what we did, and that’s all that matters to me.”

In addition to Mr. Palumbo, state Assembly members Fred Thiele and Jody Giglio, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine and Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley were on hand for the ceremony, and Suffolk County District Attorney Ray Tierney and Legislator Al Krupski each sent representatives to salute the honorees. Mr. Romaine said he was appearing on behalf of New York Congressman Nick LaLota, who was unable to attend.

Recipients of the Liberty Medal must be approved by the state Senate majority leader and voted on via resolution. “It is bestowed upon those individuals who have merited special commendation for exceptional, heroic or humanitarian acts on behalf of their fellow New Yorkers,” the senator said in a press release. “For first responders, including law enforcement, it may only be awarded for going above and beyond or outside of the call of duty required for the particular job.”

“There are certain criteria that you need to meet to even be eligible for this,” Mr. Palumbo said at the ceremony. “This is the highest civilian honor that we can give in the New York State Senate to recognize them for their actions.”

Six months later, memories of that chaotic winter day vary. Two Pulaski Street witnesses to the early stages of the fire said they could not recall this week whether the women exited the building on their own or were rescued. Two other witnesses, interviewed separately, said they saw the two women exit the building on their own. All four requested anonymity.

Wanda Wilenski, who housed the two women in the months following the fire, said that difficulties in locating affordable housing prompted one of the women to return to Poland recently. Ms. Wilenski agreed to convey a request for an interview with the remaining fire victim, who still lives in the area in temporary housing.

Ms. Giglio — who introduced the Riverhead medal winners at the ceremony and said she has known them for many years — stood by the firefighters Monday.

“I know that I spoke with these two men and that they’re honorable and they would never stand there for recognition if they didn’t do that,” Ms. Giglio said.

“We can all agree that we should always honor our volunteers and I think it was courageous and honorable that they ran in without any gear on putting their lives at risk,” she said.

A fire department source confirmed that Riverhead fire officials are aware that there are conflicting accounts about how the two women escaped the burning building.