Three hours after Long Island MacArthur Airport had hosted its inaugural and very successful 5K run on June 5 to benefit 9-1-1 Veterans, Airport firefighter Jerry Rockfeld watched a westbound Beach Musketeer private plane take off from Runway 24.
Having watched planes climb into the sky many times before, his instincts told him something was amiss.
"By the time it was over Vets Highway, it hadn't gained much altitude," the 16-year veteran of the Bay Shore fire department said, recalling the event from the Airport's fire station with fellow firefighters Bobby Delagi and Peter Ritter. "It went past the tree line, I got on the radio and said 'I think we lost them.' I just thought, 'Did I see that?'"
Not long after, the station was flooded with calls, the first from Bohemia's Fire Department. Joe Badala, the Airport's head of Training and Safety and current West Islip Fire Department chief, received Rockfeld's transmission, alerting Rescue 1 - Delagi's truck - to investigate.
Plumes of thick black smoke were visible from the gate at the airport's west end, as responding police cruisers made full speed down Veterans Highway toward the fire. Turning onto Ocean Avenue through a commercial zone in Bohemia, the downed aircraft was found engulfed in flames. Delagi wasted no time, engaging the fire while Rescue 1 was still in motion from nearly 50 feet away, dousing the wreckage in a solution of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF).
"It took less than 90 seconds to put the fire out," said Rockfeld, adding that the firefighters checked the surrounding area so that the fire and any damage associated with it was contained. "The only damage to the building was that the front window was shattered."
The unidentified pilot and the instructor of the plane sustained second- and third-degree burns and serious injuries but have both survived, thanks to EMTs and bystanders.
"We were there relatively quick," said Delagi, also a captain in the Islip Fire Department for 7 years. "They were being treated by EMS as soon as we pulled up."
Incredibly but necessarily, the above events unfolded within five minutes - the response time mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Suffolk County Police Department and the Bohemia Fire Department had set up a unified command with Airport Fire-Rescue, whose response time is the best of any fire department on Long Island, according to Public Affairs Officer Catherine Green.
"It's important to note that this was a coordinated effort," said Airport fire chief Joe Marino, an Islip Fire Department member since 1993 where he was also chief (the youngest elected in the department's history) from 2003 to 2009. Marino extended credit to the neighboring fire departments of Lakeland, Holbrook and Bohemia for their assistance, which the Airport uses as part of a mutual aid agreement, with Bohemia Fire Department taking the lead in this incident.
Of invaluable help in coordinating that effort was Ritter, in the eye of the storm, manning the radio console at the Airport department and relaying all the pertinent information.
"They [the firefighters] give me the information, and I call the FAA and the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board)," he said, adding that part of keeping the lines of communication open - no matter how innocuous a situation may be - leaves an equally clear record behind for future reference. "I give them the update, and then made the notifications to the other guys. It's a matter of documenting everything, in case there's something of priority later on."
Town of Islip citations were awarded later that month to Delagi and Rockfeld, and a group citation was also awarded to the entire LIMA team for "their initiative, teamwork, and professionalism and thank them for their continued service to our community."
Some of the members of that team, including Airport workers in other departments and credited by the Airport Fire-Rescue for their assistance, were: Badala; Phil Falco, a 17-year veteran and the current fire chief of Central Islip's department; first responders Andrew Renison of Brentwood fire department (over 10 years), Pat O'Leary of Lakeland (7 years) and James Savastano of Nesconset (over 20 years); Islip Town HAZMAT coordinator Mike Delgado (former fire chief at West Islip and 20-year veteran) and HAZMAT workers Mike Allen (Holbrook and former lieutenant in Brentwood, 15 years) and Kevin Ouwerkerk (1st lieutenant in Islip, 5 years); Jason DiGrazia (currently with West Islip, 10 years); Greg Pitka (former Lakeland chief, 20 years); Al Cinotti (voted 2007's New York State Firefighter of the Year, West Islip, 20 years); Aircraft Emergency Suffolk County Coordinator Stanley "Lee" Gillette; Airport Law Enforcement Officer Daniel Bennett; Commissioner of Aviation Teresa Rizzuto; Airport Deputy Commissioner of Aviation Eric Hofmeister; Airport Operations Manager Rob Schneider; Airport Chief of Law Enforcement Greg DeCanio; Sgt. Wayne Lewis (manned dispatch at terminal for Airport Law Enforcement); and Public Affairs Officer Green.
"People don't realize how busy we are," Marino explained from his office, decorated with an assortment of plaques and pictures, hinting at a life of service as hectic as it is fulfilling. Under his command, the Airport Fire-Rescue responds to nearly 500 emergencies annually, which run the gamut from car fires to buildings to airplanes - with special training for the latter also required by the FAA.
HAZMAT emergencies also are within the purview of the Airport's fire department, and large-scale emergencies requiring special equipment, such as the tanker truck fire that occurred in Melville last January 23 that made use of one of the Airport's trucks. The trucks discharge up to 750 gallons of foam per minute and can, as was the case with the airplane crash, remain mobile once engaged. The standard fire truck, according to Marino, discharges about 150 gallons per minute.
Training is constant and rigorous, with full-scale drills employed every 3 years and so-called "table-top" drills - drawn-up scenarios designed to address any number of hypotheticals in an emergency - more frequently run. In place as a support are guidelines drafted by the National Incident Management System Resource Center (NIMS), which operates under the aegis of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
"It's not just about responding to calls," said Marino of the structure imposed by NIMS, designed to function simply and clearly, and how this facilitates response efforts and times. "I can't underscore the importance of this enough."
Also inherent in dealing with emergencies is the awareness and management of one's own emotions. Dealing with that adrenaline dump, said Rockfeld, is also a product of practice through training and actual experience.
"Once that bell rings, it's all business," he said. "You want to get there as soon as you can. First life, then property."
"You just try to stay clam and do what you have to do," added Delagi. "It's what we train for."
Family, Tradition and Business
Reiterating his sentiments from the citation ceremony, Supervisor Nolan drew attention to the sense of service among firefighters engendered over years of duty, under circumstances that routinely test the characters of all involved.
"It's a culture that has an affinity for this kind of work," he said. "It would be under the category of 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"
Part and parcel of being a firefighter is the team aspect, one which fosters trust and faith in others who also must answer the call. Without a doubt, the ability to act under pressure without losing sight of priorities while still functioning as a team is a lot to ask of anyone. The Airport Fire-Rescue crew, staring in the face of potential tragedy, succeeded on every score. For all the dangers they face, the firefighters speak humbly about their task.
"It is a tradition, just like the military," said Delagi, son of Bobby Delagi Sr., a firefighter with over 30 years on the job in Islip, and a nationally-respected Chief of Pre-Hospital Operations for Suffolk County - the latter job entails formulating county-wide standards for emergency medical operations.
Marino also grew up surrounded by firefighters in his family - presently, two of his cousins work as paid firefighters in Garden City. Unfortunately, Marino's grandfather, who held honorary chief status after nearly 50 years of volunteer service with the Mineola fire department, died in 2003 - the year the younger Marino was elected chief at Islip. He recalled the disappointment he'd felt that his grandfather wasn't around to witness his move up the ladder.
"The only thing that stung about being chief was him not getting to see it," he said.
Ritter, a Holbrook volunteer, also follows in the footsteps of much of his family. A fourth-generation firefighter himself, his late father, Honorary Captain Wilbur Ritter of the Sayville fire department, died while on call in August 2006.