In Their Own Words: Documenting a Nightmarish Reality

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Photographer and fireman Michael Heller. Steve Florence photo

By Michael Heller

I was awakened from a deep sleep at 6:18 a.m. on Friday, December 16. It was my birthday and looking back, it felt like I was dreaming. I threw on whatever clothes happened to be close (layers, Michael, remember, layers), raced to the scene and parked my car on Washington Street. I threw off my shoes, put my bunker pants and coat on and tried to slow down and make sure my camera settings were correct. I turned around to face Main Street, and again felt as if I was dreaming….oh no, not the cinema, I thought.

I ran past firefighters gearing-up, and helped stretch hoseline into the street so it could be charged. I needed to see what was happening in the rear, so I ran to the back of SagTown Coffee. I saw the deck behind The Meridian Building fully involved with fire, with one lone firefighter on a hoseline. He needed help, so I helped until more firefighters arrived.

I moved back to the front again. Heavy smoke – heavy, brown, dirty smoke, an indicator that things were getting worse inside the building – pushed out from the theater entrance, banking down, and I knew I had to capture this. I kneeled down to stay under the smoke and continued to photograph, side-by-side with the firefighters. They knew me, knew my training and experience, knew that that this was my job, and trusted me. Along with the severity and stress of the moment, it was a good feeling.

Not much later the roof of the cinema collapsed and giant flames shot up into the sky. All I could think was that I must capture this, and capture it well.

I remembered looking around and seeing taut looks on the faces of firefighters I know, and on the ones I did not. There were many new faces, first from Shelter Island and then – what, East Quogue? Riverhead? Flanders too? I knew we were all brothers that day, all with the same training. We worked together as one, and knew that somehow we would beat this thing.

Not long after, I remember looking up, and, again, it seemed as if I was still dreaming…five aerials worked together in a defensive operation, throwing thousands of gallons of water down onto the fire. And also on us. Working in the alleyway by SagTown, a stream of water crashed down and soaked us. Wind-blown spray coated our jackets, freezing drips upon our helmets, cracking and crunching into crystals as we navigated a spaghetti-maze of hoses and waded, carefully, through streams of runoff so as to not fall. I can’t fall, I told myself. I can’t risk damaging the camera, I must capture this, this is so important.

But soon I couldn’t see; my glasses were wet, the camera’s viewfinder was wet, the lens was wet. Try as I did to keep the lens clean and free of water and ice, my lens cloths were all soaking wet as well, rendering them useless. I photographed by trust and experience alone, as I could no longer see if my images were in focus. Soon, the shutter stopped working. I looked down, and my camera was encased in ice. I placed it under the exhaust pipe of a pumper to thaw it, the truck’s motor howling in a cacophony of power as it helped fight to save our little village. Verbal communication was all but impossible so our shared looks kept us in sync.

Then, somehow, it was all over. The adrenaline rush subsided and the cold started to win. My fingers were not my own, and I couldn’t feel my toes. We shuffled about, packed up in near-silence and spoke in muted tones. We had won, but it was a sad victory. Our beloved cinema was gone, our beloved SagTown was gone, so much was destroyed. Alas, it was as if I was still dreaming.


Ed Lucyk.

Ed Lucyk, 25 years with the Sag Harbor Fire Department

“As it started I was thinking it was going to be a small thing….but then to see it progress. We thought we had it knocked down at one point, but it kept going. My concern was, ‘How are we going to stop it and when are we going to stop it?’ Especially after having been at the Easter fire, and seeing it happen again – it’s scary. But to see all of the other fire departments come together and work together…we just made it work.”

“I felt really concerned about the rest of the village, and how far it was going to go, and thinking about Christmas and about the 5 & 10, and the accountant’s office; how much is going to get lost, how much can we save? When it came to the movie theater, we were losing an iconic building and sign…it was just scary, but at the same time I was just proud to see it all come together; at the end of the day, we saved the village.”

 

Ex-Chief Kevin O’Brien Sr.

Kevin O’Brien, Sr., 38 years with the Sag Harbor Fire Department

“Well, let’s put it this way: I drove one of the first trucks down Main Street, got there, turned around, got to a hydrant. My captain – who is also my son – said, ‘Dad, I need you to pack up – this is not what we initially thought it was going to be.’ My son and I went in, at the first spot where we could go and stretched a line upstairs. Right then I called it as being way, way too hot – we have to back out of here; there’s something more to this fire that we’re not seeing. I’m an ex-chief, my son is a captain…everybody that was there – everybody, from the newest person to the oldest guy at that scene, did their job because they stuck to training.”

Kevin O’Brien Jr.

Kevin O’Brien, Jr., 7 years with the Sag Harbor Fire Department

“My first thought was that it wasn’t going to be anything too crazy, but that quickly changed. I wouldn’t say it was fear, but definitely concern. When we pulled [the line] back out and looked back, it was like, ‘Oh, no! Where is this going to go; how long are we going to be here?’ We were getting covered in ice; it was definitely hard that way.”

“It was hard to actually gauge your emotions; it’s just doing your job, thinking about not letting the truck freeze, not letting guys freeze, not letting anyone get hurt.”

Captain Alex Smith, 8 years with the Sag Harbor Fire Department

Alex Smith.

“I came down Long Beach, and as soon as I looked across the cove and saw the fire load from there, I knew it was going to be a long day. I didn’t think it was going to be an all-day experience, but my first thought was, ‘Well, this is going to be a big one.’ By the time I got there – I pulled in at about the same time as the second-due engine – and helped pull lines and set the trucks up, I went up to the roof and for the first time realized what we truly had. One of my first thoughts was, ‘OK, I’ve got three new guys with me, fresh out of fire school.’ But everyone did a great job, from the newest guy in to the oldest guy there. Everyone worked great together, from my fire crew to guys who were from fire crews 14 districts away.”

“I would say that it was a mix of emotions, between concern for everybody and myself, and a little bit of excitement: This is a big fire, the biggest I’ve seen in nine years, seeing new faces – hey, let’s work well together, we got this! Just a mix of emotions.”

Ex-Chief Pete Garypie.

Pete Garypie, 20 years with the Sag Harbor Fire Department

“The first thing that comes to mind is that it was reported as an outside deck fire. But because of the different views you had, from the rear of Main Street to the front, everybody had a different view of what was going on. Guys who were up on the roof were saying, ‘We have this,’ and guys who were in the front were saying, ‘We have that,’ so the initial reporting and initial push to make an advance on the fire was a bit misconstrued, because we didn’t know exactly what we had. As far as emotions that you’re having – you’re just worrying about the guy next to you. Were the chiefs making the right call? I was glad I wasn’t Chief for this; I wouldn’t want to have that on my shoulders, if somebody got hurt. It’s amazing that 16 fire departments and three EMS agencies were on scene, and there wasn’t a single injury reported. What an amazing accomplishment to go by, considering the weather that we had, the amount of fire load that we had. But for me, not having been in the department in 1994 for the Easter Day fire – I was still in high school at the time – what flashed back in my mind, for the guys that were, was: ‘We’re going to be here for a while; let’s make sure everybody goes home.’ It’s a shame what happened, but it can be rebuilt.”

“Early on, when we made the second push into the movie theater, and we only got in about 15 feet, maybe a little less, and then came out and turned around and looked back at the building, I thought we’d still be there, even now. For the amount of fire load in that building, I was concerned – for us, for the building, the owners and occupants of the other buildings. I don’t know all of the stories from ’94, but I heard they were there for a week, and I figured it would be the same. But hats off to all of our chiefs and officers down: in seven hours, to have that much fire, and then be wrapped up and cleaning up back in the firehouse is a tribute to everybody.”

Shane Dyckman.

Shane Dyckman, four years in the Sag Harbor Fire Department and the owner of SagTown Coffee

“Well, I live across the street on Washington Street, so I saw the call come in for 78 Main Street, behind SagTown, which is my business, so I thought it was a dumpster; it happens pretty regularly. So I look out my window and I see smoke bellowing down Washington Street. I have my gear in my house, so I just throw it on and ran out of my house. I ran to my store at first, and it was fully engulfed in smoke, and because it was my store my instinct was to just run right in. The smoke had banked down but there was still about three feet of air, so I ran right in and found flames coming in [the southwest] corner. So I guided the hose guys to come in and start putting water on it. I had this prized possession, an antique surfboard, in there by Ricky Rasmussen — a famous New York surfing pioneer from the 60s — and he made that, so I was able to grab that and go out. But the flames were still coming in that corner, and as soon as they hit it with that water it just started rolling – it was amazing – it just took over the whole place and we just had to back on out. And from there it just went so fast.”

“It was surreal. My business is burning down, in front of my eyes. And I thought we were going to be able to save it: I’m like, ‘OK, this isn’t too bad’ which is why I ran in, and saw just a little corner of flame. So I said, ‘C’mon, c’mon!’ and then I guess it was just above that, in the ceiling.”

Comments

4 COMMENTS

  1. I just read your very powerful and moving article.
    It was very emotional to read such a well done documentary of your personal experience
    and that of others…this was a life changing event for every fire fighter,
    police officer, EMS and all the other responders but through everyone’s
    persistence and commitment to protect our village, we are all safe. Thank you.

  2. I just read your very powerful and moving article.
    It was very emotional to read such a well done documentary of your personal experience
    and that of others…this was a life changing event for every fire fighter,
    police officer, EMS and all the other responders but through everyone’s
    persistence and commitment to protect our village, we are all safe. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for keeping journalism healthy in the modern age. Growing up in Sag I saw your camera at just about every event in the community I attended; maybe when you retire or even now publish a photgraphical history of Sag, I know you’ve captured massive transformation and growth through your lens.

  4. Thank you for keeping journalism healthy in the modern age. Growing up in Sag I saw your camera at just about every event in the community I attended; maybe when you retire or even now publish a photgraphical history of Sag, I know you’ve captured massive transformation and growth through your lens.

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