Controversy continues to swirl around Polish Town fire rescue

A Riverhead Fire Department spokesman said on Thursday that he believes “both sides” in an increasingly acrimonious debate about whether two firefighters who were honored this month with the Liberty Medal actually rescued a pair of elderly women trapped in a burning building in Polish Town in January.

The firefighters have claimed they rescued the two women from the building, but two eyewitnesses to the early stages of the blaze, interviewed separately, contradicted the firefighters’ claims — with each witness telling Riverhead News Review that they saw both women emerge from the building on their own. The witnesses sought and were granted anonymity in return for speaking freely.

The Liberty Medal is the highest civilian honor conferred by the New York State Senate.

Veteran Riverhead Fire Department spokesman William Sanok, who arrived at the scene on a responding fire truck, said he does not know what happened before his arrival, but speculated in an interview on Thursday that both versions could potentially be true.

“What probably happened is, the witnesses saw the two women get out and apparently one went back into the building and had to be rescued. So I think they’re both telling the truth,” he said, referring to the two firefighters and the two eyewitnesses to the early stages of the fire.  

Debate over the firefighters’ actions began on June 16, when Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar was caught on a “hot mic” at a public meeting saying that she declined to attend the Liberty Medal ceremony and implying that she had heard that the firefighters inflated their role in the incident. “The community in Pulaski is up in arms about it,” she concluded. Ms. Aguiar’s comments were first reported by RiverheadLocal, which wrote the original story about the pair’s heroics.

A staffer in the office of state Sen. Anthony Palumbo — who presented the medals to the firefighters —said the nomination of the firefighters was based on the original RiverheadLocal story.

The controversy reemerged on Thursday when RiverheadLocal published an “open letter” from Riverhead Fire Chief Joseph Hartmann to Ms. Aguiar, in which he defended his firefighters and hailed their actions, but fell short of explicitly declaring that they rescued the two women.  

“We are disheartened by your recent comments and want to set the record straight,” the chief wrote in the letter. “1st Assistant Chief William Renten and Firefighter Frank Greenwood did, in fact, put themselves in harm’s way, and without hesitation, to ensure the safety of two residents from a confirmed working structure fire on January 25. These men knowingly went into a fully engulfed structure without proper protective equipment or concern for their own safety. Both men reacted and did what they are trained to do …”

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,” said Sen. Palumbo in a press release prior to the medal ceremony. “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.” 

Asked why the chief didn’t explicitly say in the letter that the two women were rescued by his firefighters, Mr. Sanok said, “I believe the chief is trying to support the firefighters, because we’re all trying to do the right thing.”

Neither Mr. Greenwood nor Mr. Renten immediately responded to requests for comment on the chief’s letter or Mr. Sanok’s speculation. One of the two women who were rescued has returned to Poland, according to Wanda Wilenski, who housed the women for a short time after the fire. The other woman could not be reached for comment.