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Southold burn victim dies from injuries; coach recounts horrific incident

Southold fire

The Southold woman who was discovered on fire at the Southold High School baseball field Jan. 5 has died from her injuries, a Stony Brook University Hospital spokesperson confirmed Monday.

Jeanne Caufield, 58, was found by members of the school’s boys basketball teams, who were practicing in the school gym around 7 p.m. when they spotted the flames through a window.

The varsity coach and several unidentified players have been credited with rushing to Ms. Caufield’s aid, as they used towels and the clothes on their backs to extinguish the flames that engulfed her.

Southold first responders treated Ms. Caufield at the scene and she was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital’s burn unit, where she died of her injuries last week.

Southold police detective Ned Grathwohl said at the scene that fire officials estimated she was burned on 40 to 50 percent of her body. Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said the injuries appear to have been self-inflicted. He said Ms. Caufield appeared to have been alone at her house, which is adjacent to the school, before making her way onto school grounds.

The Southold boys basketball team at a recent practice. (Credit: Bob Liepa_
The Southold boys basketball team at a recent practice. (Credit: Bob Liepa_

In an interview before his team’s game Friday, Southold boys basketball coach Lucas Grigonis broke his silence about the incident.

Mr. Grigonis, who 10 years ago was trained and certified as an emergency medical technician, said the team didn’t waste time springing into action after the team noticed Ms. Caufield on the field. He told one player to call 911, ordered the junior varsity team into the locker room and asked varsity players to grab towels or anything else they could get their hands on and start filling up water buckets.

Ms. Caufield was still upright when the players approached her. Mr. Grigonis said he told her to stop, drop and roll. “She basically fell down and that’s when we started trying to beat the fire out with, honestly, the clothes on our backs and the towels that we have,” he said.

She was semi-conscious while waiting for the fire department to respond and for a helicopter to fly her to Stony Brook University Hospital, Mr. Grigonis said.

“I’ve dealt with injuries and seen injuries and whatnot, but nothing like this, not to this magnitude,” the coach added.

Junior varsity coach Rich Pisacano, who was at the scene along with athletic director Steve Flanagan, called it “the worst thing I ever saw.”

More than half of the varsity team was “directly or indirectly involved, whether they were getting water and towels or helping with the JV kids to get [them] away from the doors and into the locker room,” said Grigonis.

Doreen McFarland, a PTA member and mother of one of the players on the team, said four varsity players extinguished the fire by smothering it with their jerseys.

Mr. Grigonis said he didn’t want to name the players involved or make them available to talk about the incident for fear of them reliving the tragedy.

The coaches and players have been lauded for their reaction and quick thinking. Mr. Flanagan said, “Under the circumstances, I don’t think it could be handled any better.”

Are they heroes?

“I think that they performed heroically, no question,” Southold Superintendent David Gamberg said. He added, “Honestly, it’s nothing short of incredible. … I’m enamored by their character. That’s the best word that you can use.”

Mr. Gamberg believes there are plans in the works for the players and coaches to be recognized for their actions by the school board and possibly other organizations.

“I have a problem with me myself being called a hero,” Mr. Grigonis said. “The boys certainly acted as that and I think we would do what anyone should do, just help someone else that needs it.”

The First Settlers have been through a lot. This isn’t the first time they have encountered tragedy. Last January their coach at the time, Phil Reed, suffered a heart attack while driving home from practice and died.

“Everyone keeps asking how we’re doing, how I’m doing,” Grigonis said. “All I keep saying — and it’s the truth — it’s cliché, but it’s the truth: We’re just taking one day at a time. Some days are better than others.”

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