Noted feminist and activist killed in Southold house fire

Southold fire chief Peggy Killian meets with Suffolk arson squad investigators as they arrive on the scene of a fatal house fire in Southold Wednesday. (Credit: Grant Parpan photos)
Southold fire chief Peggy Killian meets with Suffolk arson squad investigators as they arrive on the scene of a fatal house fire in Southold Wednesday. (Credit: Grant Parpan photos)

A Southold woman was killed during a house fire Wednesday morning, authorities said. 

The woman, identified by neighbors as Sidney Abbott, died after she became trapped in her house on Willow Pond Lane about 10:30 a.m.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Ms. Abbott, 77, was a noted feminist and gay rights activist as well as the author of several books.

The New York Post, the first media outlet to identify Ms. Abbott as the victim of the fire, called her a “force for gay women’s rights in New York and beyond since the ’70s, when she helped urge [the National Organization for Women] not to ignore lesbian issues.”

The New York Times called her 1972 book, “Sappho Was a Right-On Woman,” which she co-authored with her former partner, a “resounding lesbian and feminist document of vital interest to all females, in and out of the feminist movement.”

A graduate of the University of New Mexico, Ms. Abbott later attended Columbia University graduate school, where she studied urban planning. She worked in New York City government and was the first openly gay person to serve on the community planning board in Manhattan, according to an online biography.

Ms. Abbott was also politically active on the North Fork, serving on the Southold Town Democratic committee.

Next-door neighbor and former Southold fire chief George Berry was the first to rush to Ms. Abbott’s burning house Wednesday morning. Mr. Berry, 80, said he was in the cellar of his house when his fire department beeper alerted him to the fire next door.

Mr. Berry said he ran to Ms. Abbott’s house but found all the doors locked. He pulled a crowbar from his truck and used it to break down one of the doors.

“The heat was tremendous,” he said. “I got on my hands and knees and I knew where she was. She never left her chair.”

Mr. Berry crawled through the smoke-filled house and got four feet away from Ms. Abbott before he was forced back by the flames.

“I could have reached her and then all of a sudden a big ball of fire comes over and hits me on the top of my head,” he said. “I lost my breath and realized I had to turn back.”

Southold firefighters were close behind, and were able to douse the flames, but the victim had already been killed. Southold Fire Department Chief Peggy Killian said the victim was found in a chair. A wheelchair was found nearby.

“Her ability to get out of the house was probably not there,” Ms. Killian said.

The fire occurred in a living area on the first floor near the front of the house, she said. A dog was found dead in the same room as Ms. Abbott and a cat was found dead outside.

Two firefighters were taken by ambulance to a local hospital for treatment of minor injuries.

Neighbor Debbie Ostroski said she saw the fire as soon as she left her house Wednesday morning.

“You just saw the smoke piling out,” Ms. Ostroski said.

Ms. Abbott kept to herself and lived alone with her pets, her neighbor said.

Police Chief Martin Flatley said she did not have any family nearby.

The county’s arson and homicide squads are still investigating the fatality, though Chief Flatley said the cause of the fire doesn’t appear to be suspicious.

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