Shortly after opening the storefront office for business at 9 o’clock Wednesday morning, a strange glow in a second-floor window across the street caught the eye of an employee at Gadzinski Insurance on Pulaski Street.
“It looked like a very tall, bright candle inside,” she recalled Thursday morning. Her desk faces the street and when she looked up and saw the yellow light grow brighter and more intense, she realized she was looking at flames inside the apartment above the Western Union store.
As panic rose within, the employee, who asked not to be identified by name, said she ran out of her office and called down the street to the town highway crew working one block east.
In an instant, flames started to shoot from the upstairs window of the two-story building. The barber next door to the insurance office came running out of his shop with a fire extinguisher and she went back into her office to retrieve their fire extinguisher.
Riverhead firefighter Frank Greenwood was one of the highway department crew members repairing the sidewalk on Pulaski Street and Hamilton Avenue when he heard “a lady yelling and pointing at us.” He looked over and saw the flames.
Another highway crew member working on Pulaski Street Wednesday morning was J.R. Renten, first assistant chief of the Riverhead Fire Department.
“Me and J.R. ran toward the house,” Greenwood said. “I yelled, ‘Call 911’ and they said there was people inside.”
“The fire was definitely going,” Greenwood said. The two firefighters knew they had only seconds to get any occupants out. “You couldn’t breathe in those conditions,” he said.
“We open the door — the upstairs was completely covered in smoke. We saw the flames in the back,” Greenwood said.
Through the smoke, Greenwood and Renten saw a woman on the stairs. They ran up and got her down and out of the house. “We’re asking is anyone else in there,” Greenwood said, “and then I turned around and saw the second lady in the corner window, banging on the glass,” he said.
“So I’m like, ‘J.R.! We got another one!’”
The two firefighters raced back into the smoke-filled house.
“So me and him charged up the stairs,” Greenwood said. “We held our breath, went in the room. We pulled her out. We both pulled her down the stairs and got her out,” he said.
MORE COVERAGE: Firefighters battle blaze on Pulaski Street
Renten, a 35-year volunteer with Riverhead Fire Department, and Greenwood, a firefighter for 10 years, both said they didn’t think twice about what they knew they had to do to save that woman’s life.
“It all happened so fast,” Renten said. “We had no fire trucks. We had nothing. The alarm didn’t even go off yet,” he said.
“We just did what we’re trained to do.”
Greenwood said going into a burning building without protective gear “definitely tells you it’s hot. And with no oxygen [tank]— the whole place was just filling up with smoke,” he said.
“You know, we didn’t think. We just acted,” Greenwood said.
After they got the two residents out, Greenwood and Renten tried to extinguish the fire with extinguishers the barber and office worker had.
“We tried to knock it down a little. But it was too far gone,” he said. “That’s how it goes with these fires — in seconds,” Greenwood said.
“I’m just glad we didn’t have another Second Street,” he said, referring to the fatal fire that claimed the lives of five family members in November 2021. Greenwood said he was one of the first firefighters at the scene that night. The house was fully involved in flames when he arrived. It’s a haunting memory.
“So being able to save these two people and make sure they were alright and got out. You know, that’s somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother. And, you know, it’s fortunate that we were there, working there at that time,” Greenwood said.
According to neighbors, the two women, both Polish immigrants in their 70s, have been renting apartments in the building for many years. They pray together each morning. On Wednesday, while they were praying in the downstairs apartment, the fire broke out upstairs, one neighbor said.
The woman who lived on the second floor went upstairs to try to find her two cats when she became trapped in a bedroom. One cat ran out of the house, the other cat perished, apparently a victim of smoke inhalation. Firefighters found the cat under a bed.
Neighbors brought the women to the insurance office across the street. One of the employees opened her own home to the victims left homeless by the blaze.
The tight-knit Polish community in Riverhead quickly mobilized to provide the women with necessities, such as clothes, shoes, winter coats and other personal items.
“They are of course in such a state of shock,” said Renata Klibisz, who organized the collection of donated items for the women yesterday.
Klibisz said she and a friend plan to set up a GoFundMe page in the next few days to raise funds to help the women take care of basic needs.
For their part, Renten and Greenwood are uncomfortable with the attention and praise their heroic actions have drawn.
“At the end of the day, you know, you’re a firefighter. That’s your job. That’s what you’re trained to do,” Greenwood said.
When they were done with the fire, Renten and Greenwood didn’t skip a beat. They went back to the sidewalk work they’d been doing when they heard cries for help that morning — setting bricks and repairing curbing on Pulaski Street.
“Honestly, it could have been anybody in our fire department,” Greenwood said. “We got a great group of guys. You know, everybody’s always eager to be the first one in, to do what they’ve got to do,” he said. “We’re always always training, always working, always trying to strive to be the best. And, you know, just trying to save lives and save people’s property,” he said.
On Wednesday, it was “mission accomplished.”
Update, Jan. 27: A GoFundMe page has been launched to raise money to aid the victims:
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