Bill Eagle, one of seven family members to test positive for COVID-19, remembered as avid pilot

From his bed at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, Bill Eagle tried to reassure his wife, Martha: “Hang in there,” he repeated.

The Southold couple had tested positive for COVID-19 within two days of each other in early September. After a week of at-home care, their conditions deteriorated to the point that they both were transported via ambulance to Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital on Sept. 13. The virus had initially hit Ms. Eagle hardest, putting her into a daze unlike anything she had ever experienced during an illness. Her husband cared for her at home, cooking her eggs and bringing her tea, until the virus finally left him unable to get out of bed.

COVID-19’s effects can vary widely from patient to patient. Ms. Eagle’s condition improved enough so she could be released from the hospital on Sept. 16, the same day her husband was transferred to Southampton, which is better equipped to treat more severe COVID cases.

Soon afterward, as they spoke via FaceTime, Mr. Eagle explained to his wife that his oxygen saturation had been dropping. The doctors recommended they begin using a ventilator. Still, he remained upbeat. He channeled his concern toward his wife’s health and told her not to worry: “Hang in there.”

“And it was cute, because he said ‘I want to give everybody my antibodies when I get better,’ ” Ms. Eagle recalled.

They talked about going out to dinner when he got home to celebrate their wedding anniversary on Oct. 9.

“That was the last time I spoke to him,” said Ms. Eagle, 70.

Mr. Eagle developed an infection from a central IV, which prevented him from using the proning position, where he would lie face down to help increase oxygen flow to the lungs.

His condition soon spiraled downhill. His blood pressure dropped and heart rate increased.

“His organs were failing,” said his daughter, Jessica Santiago of Jamesport.

About three weeks after testing positive for COVID-19, Mr. Eagle died on Sept. 28, becoming another face of a pandemic that has now claimed more than 214,000 American lives. He was 80.

Seven family members in total tested positive for COVID-19: The Eagles, Ms. Santiago and her husband, Ivan, and their three children. The infections in early September triggered a ripple effect at local schools. Ms. Santiago is a social worker for the Southold School District and her husband is a teacher in the district. Their positive tests forced a delayed start to in-person learning for the district as a majority of their fellow staff members were required to quarantine because they’d all been together for staff meetings.

Meanwhile, the Santiagos’ two oldest children had just started the school year at Aquebogue Elementary School. Riverhead School District’s interim superintendent Christine Tona announced at the time that students and teachers in their cohort would be asked to quarantine for 14 days.

Ms. Santiago said her youngest son, who is 4, was the first to develop symptoms when he had an eight-hour fever. The fever subsided quickly enough that he never needed a doctor visit. Her middle son, who is 6, and husband were next to develop fevers.

“Still, we really thought it was a 24-hour virus,” she said.

One day later, Ms. Santiago and her mother developed fevers.

At that point, she had already been to the staff meeting at work and her kids had attended the first day of school, so she quickly needed an answer with a COVID test.

On Sept. 6, the Santiago family went for rapid COVID tests. About 15 minutes after the tests were done, as they waited in the parking lot, Ms. Santiago said she received a call with the dreaded news: They were all positive.

“Now, we feared for my dad, because he was 80 and had a heart condition,” she said. “Out of all of us, he would be the one we knew would be hit the worst.”

Ms. Santiago said they had taken precautions since the pandemic began to limit exposure by following all the recommended protocols. She never brought her kids to stores or restaurants. When her sons played T-ball over the summer, they wore masks. She’d constantly reminded them to give people space. She would use Lysol on their shoes when they walked into the house. “I’m a germophobe by nature,” Ms. Santiago said.

Bill and Martha Eagle. (Courtesy photo)

At the time of their positive infections, new cases in Suffolk County were steadily under 100 per day, far below what was seen during the outbreak’s peak in the spring. On Sept. 8, the county Department of Health reported 52 new cases across all of Suffolk County.

“It was just a shocker that we got it,” she said.

Her best guess as to where they contracted the virus was at a playground. They bought a camper this summer, thinking that would be a smart and safe way to enjoy recreation. At a campground, they allowed their kids to use a playground for the first time. She said the rules were strict in terms of the number of kids allowed and wearing masks.

“That’s the only out-of-the-box thing my kids did within that kind of week to 10-day span they have you trace back to,” she said.

Following their positive diagnoses, no other contacts outside their family became infected with COVID-19, she said. 

It brought a level of comfort during a trying time to know the virus did not spread in either school district, she said.

He was a teddy bear.

Jessica Santiago

Ms. Santiago said she developed the most severe symptoms among the family members in their Jamesport home, with a 103.5 degree fever. She lost her senses of smell and taste for three weeks. She was on steroids to help with a lingering cough. Her oldest son, who will soon be 9, had the most severe symptoms among the kids, with a high fever for three days.

Her concern for her parents, coupled with caring for her kids, made the recovery even more difficult since she could never fully rest. And she worried about what stigma they might face when they re-emerged from quarantine.

Ms. Santiago returned to work last week after an extended absence to recover and mourn her father’s death. Her husband went back one week earlier.

“We’ve been so supported,” she said.

But the challenges of “COVID grief” make mourning the loss of a loved one uniquely difficult.

“Being a social worker, the stages of grief, you need family around to help you through that first denial stage and have a service and we haven’t had that yet,” she said.

From an early age, Bill Eagle had a love for aviation. He earned a pilot’s license at 16 and owned several different planes over the years. He worked part-time as a pilot for Skydive Long Island, flying small planes for the brave souls who wished to tempt fate by jumping out at 10,000 feet. He’d fill a room with laughter telling stories of people grabbing his leg when the moment came to jump.

“He’d have to shake them off his leg,” Ms. Santiago said with a laugh.

His last name fit all too perfectly with his passion. His license plate for a long time was “Fly Eagle.” When they set up a password last month at the hospital to communicate private health information, they chose “Fly Eagle.”

Bill Eagle celebrates his 80th birthday. (Courtesy photo)

His primary job for many years was as a heavy machine operator, working for Local 138. He had also done painting at earlier points in his life.

But it was his role as a pilot that led him to his future wife. They were both separated from prior relationships when they met, although they didn’t know it at first. Mr. Eagle had three boys and the future Ms. Eagle had a boy and girl.

Her son had wanted to fly in a plane, so she took him to a small airport where they connected with a pilot who took them for a flight. Mr. Eagle happened to be there that day and the two briefly talked. He later reached out to Ms. Eagle to ask if she’d like him to take her son for a flight one day.

That spark eventually led to their marriage at St. Patrick’s R.C. Church in Southold.

“She was kind of like a piece of the puzzle that was missing for him,” said Billy Eagle, one of Mr. Eagle’s three sons. (His son Jeff died in a car accident at age 27 in 1995.)

Ms. Santiago said she was close to 12 years old when Mr. Eagle entered her life.

“It was like instantaneous connection,” she said.

He jumped at the role of her father and the two developed a deep bond. To this day, Ms. Santiago said, she refers to him simply as dad, not just a stepfather.

He taught Ms. Santiago how to fly a plane. It was a hobby they shared together, even though she ultimately turned in her pilot wings once she became pregnant for the first time.

“He was so proud to teach me,” she said.

He had a reassuring way about him as he taught her the intricacies of flying a Cessna. They never argued in the plane. The tone of his voice would signal to her when she needed to pay a little closer attention.

“I don’t think I’ll ever fly a plane again,” she said, fighting back tears. “Because I’ve never flown with anyone but him.”

Mr. Eagle’s family remembered him as an outgoing man with a funny sense of humor who could make friends anywhere. At times he could have appeared rough around the edges, dropping curse words in conversation. But he was soft inside with a big heart, the kind of man who would get choked up when reading a Father’s Day card. 

“He was a teddy bear,” his daughter said.

Ms. Eagle recalled one time when she casually mentioned to her husband that she’d never had a party. She didn’t intend it in a way that meant to seek sympathy or for him to plan something.

But soon after, Mr. Eagle organized a surprise party for her 60th birthday at The Cooperage Inn in Baiting Hollow. When she turned 65, he did it again.

Billy Eagle, who currently lives in Iowa with his wife, Rachel, said it was important for his father to always say to his children that he loved them. The elder Mr. Eagle’s father had never shown that kind of emotion to him. He heard his father say “I love you” for the first time just a few days before he died.

“My dad carried that his whole life,” said Billy Eagle, who’s now 54. “My dad always told me, no matter what happens at the end of the day, we get in arguments or not, or if you had a great day or a bad day, always tell each other we love each other.”

Billy Eagle called his dad his best friend. He credited his father for pushing him to obtain a truck driver’s license that could allow him a career in heavy equipment.

Before COVID-19 symptoms limited his ability to talk, Mr. Eagle told his son to promise that he would not travel to New York. 

“He says, whatever happens to me, please do not come up here, I do not want you to get this,” he said.

They spoke for the last time on Sept. 14. Billy Eagle said he could hear in his father’s voice that he was suffering and couldn’t breathe well.

“It almost didn’t sound like him,” he said. “It scared me.”

As Mr. Eagle’s condition worsened and the reality set in that his time was limited, his daughter pleaded to a hospital nurse for the opportunity to see him one last time. The hospital couldn’t make an exception to their rules, they were told. But they were given another option to come see Mr. Eagle through the hospital window.

Ms. Santiago picked up her mother and drove to Southampton at around 1 a.m. 

“It just wasn’t enough,” she said. “The next day I called and said listen, before you turn the machines off, can we just tell him we love him and to go peacefully.”

A nurse who had been caring for Mr. Eagle throughout his hospital stay happily agreed to hold up his iPad as the family members called. Ms. Santiago said she was so grateful for the nurse, who gently rubbed her father’s head as they said goodbye, bringing a small sense of physical comfort that has eluded so many.

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