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Mass Casualties Avoided in Shinnecock Hills Fire, Town Officials Say

Fire chief risked his own safety to help extinguish a man who was on fire after blaze broke out in a house where 20 people lived in August, town board says.

The scene of a fire on Greenfield Road on Dec. 4. Credit: Dennis Chuppe/Southampton Fire Department
The scene of a fire on Greenfield Road on Dec. 4. Credit: Dennis Chuppe/Southampton Fire Department

Southampton Town officials said a fire that ripped through a house in Shinnecock Hills on Wednesday night, seriously injuring one occupant, could have been a lot worse.

The house at 18 Greenfield Road was cited by code enforcement for health and safety hazards, including 20 illegal tenants, some of whom lived in the basement. The town board believes a temporary restraining order obtained to restrict the occupancy helped save lives.

“The efforts of the Town’s Code Enforcement Division to shut down this house and return it to its legal one family use prevented a massive tragedy,” Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said in a statement. “If people had been still occupying the basement at the time of the fire, there is no doubt we would be talking about mass casualties.”

Councilman James Malone thanked firefighters and ambulance workers who responded after the blaze broke out, including several explosions from propane tanks on the property.

"In particular, the heroic actions of Southampton Volunteer Fire Department Chief Chris Brenner, a Southampton Town employee assigned to the Town Police communications division, in risking his own safety to help extinguish an individual whose clothes and hair were on fire when he was first to arrive on scene deserves special commendation," he said.

The two-story house was fully engulfed in flames when chiefs arrived just after a 911 call was made at 5:55 p.m. The two occupants had just made it. The man who was burned is recovering from possible smoke inhalation burns at Stony Brook University Hospital's Burn Unit, according to Fire Marshal John Rankin, who is investigating the cause of the fire.

Councilperson Chris Nuzzi, who is co-chair of the town’s Quality of Life Task Force, said code enforcement executed a search warrant at the house in August, and found approximately 20 people living there, with at least seven in an illegally converted basement.

"Due to Code Enforcements investigative efforts, the town was able to go to Supreme Court and win an injunction and temporary restraining order returning the premises to its legal and permitted use as a single family residence and prohibiting all but one family, living on the second floor from staying at the premises," Nuzzi said.

Councilwoman Christine Preston Scalera, co-chair of the task force, said that strict building requirements for living space in basement is enacted with good reason. "In the event of an emergency like this type of fire, the proper structural configuration of stairs, windows and walls is vital to providing occupants with multiple means of egress to prevent being trapped by smoke and fire," she said, adding that the basement at the Greenfield Road house had no alternative means of egress.

"Without last summer’s efforts of the Town Code Enforcement Division, Town Police and the Town Attorney’s Office to build and win the case for the temporary restraining order, anyone down there would have been trapped and faced imminent harm,” Scalera said.

Councilman Bridget Fleming said those who were displaced when the court order was issued were given assistance from the Suffolk County Department of Social Services.

According to minutes from the board's Oct. 22 meeting, the owner had cleaned up the property.

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