Last month, Southold Fire Department learned one of its longtime members, Ed Boyd, had been named Suffolk County’s top emergency medical technician.
Now the department can count the county’s top firefighter among its ranks as well.
Ex-fire chief and active firefighter George Berry of Southold, 80, has been named Firefighter of the Year by the Suffolk County Volunteer Firemen’s Association for rushing into a burning home to try to rescue his next-door neighbor during a fatal fire in April 2015.
Mr. Berry was also chosen to receive the Medal of Valor from the Suffolk County Fire Academy and from his own department.
“We are proud,” said assistant chief Peggy Killian, who nominated Mr. Berry for the awards. “Two big awards in one year.”
Mr. Berry was in his driveway on April 15, 2015, when he heard the dissonant tones of his fire pager go off. The longtime firefighter — who still rushes to nearly every daytime call to volunteer directing traffic as fire police — heard the address of the fire: Willow Pond Lane.
It was the house right next door, he realized.
“When somebody’s yelling [for help] … you try to make the rescue,” Mr. Berry told the Suffolk Times, adding that he was surprised to learn he’d been chosen for the honor.
Acting on “instinct,” Mr. Berry — who won the department’s Firefighter of the Year award in the 1970s — raced across the lawn to assist his neighbor, Sidney Abbott, a noted feminist writer who lived in the house. By the time he arrived, the front part of the structure was engulfed in flames.
As Mr. Berry opened the front door, heavy smoke and flames billowed out at him. He said he down on his stomach and crawled across the floor, trying to use what little oxygen was left in the house to breathe, just like in training. He wasn’t wearing any protective gear.
Mr. Berry said he saw that Ms. Abbott was sitting on a chair by the front door, but before he could reach her, the flames intensified. A rush of fresh air supercharged the fire, leading to what he called a “flashover.” Flames rolled over Mr. Berry’s head, singing his hair and arms.
“It was like a tornado,” he recalled, gesturing with his hands over his head to show the force of the blast. Realizing that he could not save his neighbor from where he was, Mr. Berry crawled back out of the house.
He said he ran back home to grab a crowbar. His wife of nearly 60 years, Sandy, screamed that he was going to have a heart attack, but Mr. Berry said he can’t remember the warning. Then, with two other firefighters, tried to break down a side door.
It was only after the rest of the department arrived and got the fire under control that Mr. Berry paused and was treated for smoke inhalation.
Roger Putnam, chairperson of the committee that named Mr. Berry Firefighter of the Year, said the Southold native went “above and beyond” the call of duty. It’s that dedication to helping his fellow neighbor — even at the risk of his own life — that earned Mr. Berry the award, Mr. Putnam said.
“This guy, he tried to make the attempt and unfortunately he couldn’t get in there,” he said. “It flashed over and he got blown out of the house.” Mr. Putnam added that Mr. Berry was in “great shape” for a man his age.
Despite being honored for his actions, Mr. Berry still says it was a “bad day.” He said he still cries when he thinks about how he wasn’t able to save his neighbor.
“I really have trouble talking about it,” he said, pausing to settle his emotions.
Mr. Berry has been a Southold Fire Department member for 63 years, serving as chief from 1976 to 1978. He joined while still in high school, following in the footsteps of his father and two uncles, who were charter members of the department.
At one point, 11 members of the Berry family were in the department’s Hook and Ladder Company. The awards are a nice honor, he said, but he remains surprised that he would be the one chosen.
“I really enjoy what I do,” Mr. Berry said. “It’s in my blood. I was born with it, grew up with it.”