Southold basketball team praised for aiding burn victim

Southold fire

Members of the Southold boys basketball team are getting support from school counselors and the community after several athletes and the team’s coach rushed to the aid of a woman who was found on fire near the high school gym Thursday night.

“It’s just horrific,” said Superintendent David Gamberg in an interview. “We’re just very grateful for our community overall, the families and the fire department, and how everyone is concerned about the students.”

The team was practicing in the gym around 7 p.m. when the varsity players noticed through a window that a woman — identified by police as 58-year-old Jeanne Caufield of Southold — was on fire outside, according to a parent of one of the student athletes.

A handful of the older athletes quickly ushered the younger players away as another called 911, said parent Britta Babashak, whose son helped in the rescue.

“I’m really proud of the boys, although it’s been a long night,” Ms. Babashak said. “I don’t think you want to see your 16-year-old see anything like that ever.”

Doreen McFarland, a PTA member and mother of one of the athletes, said varsity players rushed outside to try to rescue Ms. Caufield.

“Four varsity players got the fire out by smothering it with their jerseys,” she said. “It’s an amazing thing to see these kids put themselves in a position to help.”

Southold boys basketball coach Lucas Grigonis said he was first on the scene Thursday night. Visibly shaken nearly an hour later, he declined to comment until after he had spoken with police investigators.

Ms. Babashak said the boys and Mr. Grigonis stayed with the victim until police and emergency volunteers arrived at the scene.

“The players and coach did the best thing they could have done in that scenario,” she said. “The boys are pretty shaken up.”

Southold first responders treated the victim at the scene and she was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital’s burn unit, where she remains in critical condition, a hospital spokesperson confirmed Friday morning.

Southold police detective Ned Grathwohl said fire officials estimated she was burned on 40 to 50 percent of her body and Southold Fire Chief Jim Rich said the victim’s injuries were “very serious.” Police investigators have since said that the woman’s injuries appear to have been “self-inflicted” and the incident doesn’t seem to be a criminal matter.

Southold Fire Department assistant chief Peggy Killian was also on scene Thursday night and said first responders “did the best we could and got her to the right place.” Ms. Killian also credited the student athletes who intervened with helping to keep the victim alive.

“If it wasn’t for those kids, the outcome could have been different,” she said, declining to comment further.

Mr. Gamberg said school officials were aware of the situation as it unfolded Thursday night, noting that the district has protocols in place to deal with tragedies and crises. The incident occurred after school hours, which proved how important it is that staff be “aware at all times,” he said.

The North Fork’s school community has since rallied around the team to get them the support they need. After a crisis team meeting early Friday morning, social workers from Mattituck and Greenport schools went to Southold High School to assist the students, he said.

According to the school’s athletic department, all three basketball games scheduled for Friday night — the junior varsity and varsity games, as well as an alumni match set up to honor the team’s former coach, the late Phil Reed — have been canceled. The games have not yet been rescheduled.

Mr. Gamberg has received phone calls from several Southold firefighters who praised the athletes for their quick thinking and heroics. Both Ms. McFarland and Ms. Babashak said they were proud of how the team responded to the terrible situation.

“We raise our kids out here and we take for granted our community of great kids,” Ms. Babashak said. “You couldn’t ask for anything better. They acted like a team.”

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File photo credit: Paul Squire

Correction: Doreen McFarland’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story. We regret the error.