Members of the Riverhead Fire Department marching in the Memorial Day parade May 29, led by Chief Joe Hartmann. Photo: Denise Civiletti

It’s time for the manufactured “controversy” about the rescue of two elderly women from a burning building in Polish Town to end.

First, we stand by our reporting from the scene on Jan. 25 and after the incident. We interviewed eyewitnesses, Chief of the Department Joe Hartmann and, after seeking them out, the two volunteer firefighters who rescued the women from the building.

Second, it’s a crying shame that, whatever might be motivating them, some individuals have chosen to spread rumors and half-truths about events of that morning, and others have chosen to repeat them, which amounts to nothing but scurrilous gossip. And that’s what created and is perpetuating this “controversy.”

What a kick in the face this has been for the two volunteer firefighters, First Assistant Chief J.R. Renten and 10-year veteran Frank Greenwood. They did not seek out publicity. We sought them out for an interview because we believed their selfless actions and heroism needed to be acknowledged and we wanted to tell the story of the rescue if they were willing to be interviewed.

Now that Supervisor Yvette Aguiar during a public Town Board meeting questioned the facts of what happened that day and referred to their statements in RiverheadLOCAL interviews about the rescue as “all these claims in the newspaper” — touching off the current “controversy” — Chief Renten and Firefighter Greenwood probably regret giving that interview. Who could blame them?

Enough already.

Here’s what we know about what happened that morning.

There were two apartments in the building at 522 Pulaski Street, one on the first floor, one on the second floor. The door to the first-floor apartment was on the west side of the building, exiting onto a driveway. The door to the second-floor apartment was the rear of the building.

Each apartment was rented by an elderly female tenant. Both were Polish immigrants who spoke little English.

The two women prayed together every morning in the downstairs apartment. On the morning of Jan. 25, while they were praying in the downstairs apartment, they began to smell smoke and realized it was coming from the second-floor apartment. The two women existed the first-floor apartment and went to the door to the second-floor apartment. The second-floor tenant went upstairs to try to find her two pet cats.

The fire was spreading quickly and smoke, then flames, could be seen at the front windows of the second floor. An employee at an insurance office across the street from the home ran outside and yelled “Fire!”

Renten and Greenwood, who are both Riverhead Highway Department employees, happened to be working with a crew repairing sidewalks up the block. They heard the office worker screaming, saw the smoke coming from the second-floor of the building at 522 Pulaski Street and ran over there.

From our Jan. 26 article:

“We open the door — the upstairs was completely covered in smoke. We saw the flames in the back,” Greenwood told RiverheadLOCAL.

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.

Through the smoke, they saw a woman on the stairs, grabbed hold of her and pulled her outside. She was speaking excitedly in Polish and neither man understood what she was saying. Then, Greenwood said, he turned around and saw someone in the corner window on the second floor, banging on the glass.

MORE COVERAGE: Firefighters battle blaze on Pulaski Street

RiverheadLOCAL was at the scene that morning. One member of our staff happened to be passing the location, saw smoke, stopped and started taking photos before any fire trucks had even arrived. Another RiverheadLOCAL staff member arrived within minutes. Another monitored the incident through fire department and police transmissions over the public safety radio channels.

We interviewed Chief Hartmann at the scene as well as two other witnesses at the scene. We first reported the account of the fire at 9:45 a.m., while firefighters were still working to put it out. We updated it later that morning and the following day published a second story based on our interviews with the two firefighters.

At no time after we published either story did anyone contact us to say the account of the rescue we published was inaccurate.

After the supervisor made her comments during the June 16 work session, apparently oblivious to the fact that the microphone in front of made her comments audible to the audience and viewers on the public access cable channel and live stream, we contacted her to ask about the basis for her comments. We wanted to know if we got anything wrong back in January. We work hard to report accurately and fairly. When we mess up, we want to hear about it so we can correct it and post a correction notice. Aguiar chose not to answer our question.

We’ve heard rumors about how this “controversy” got started and why. But we don’t publish rumors. We tried to determine whether the rumors had any basis in fact and found no evidence that they did.

We have confidence in the facts we reported. To recap: Yes, the two women were seen exiting the downstairs apartment through the side door. But then they entered the building through the rear door to go upstairs.

God only knows whether they would have survived if Renten and Greenwood weren’t repairing sidewalks on Pulaski Street. What we do know is Renten and Greenwood risked their own safety to save the lives of two people that morning. They entered a smoke-filled burning building without any safety gear to help two total strangers escape. That is the essence of heroism. That is the essence of dedication to mission. Riverhead is so fortunate that there are volunteer firefighters who possess that kind of dedication and courage.

They deserve our thanks.

They do not deserve to be the victims of the whisper campaign that seems to have taken root, recklessly spread by the town supervisor no less, which disparages their integrity, their honesty and the dedication with which they serve our community.

As Chief Hartmann said in his open letter to the supervisor this week:

“Our firefighters and Department do not deserve to be disgraced for ensuring the safety and well-being of the Riverhead community which they are sworn to serve and protect. It is our strong belief that the Department and its membership, along with these two firefighters, deserve your apology.”

We could not agree more.

Editor’s note: This post was amended post-publication to remove redundant text that was inserted as a result of an editing error.

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