People of the Year

2023 People of the Year: Cutchogue Fire Department water rescue team

They are called “first responders” for a reason, and four members of the Cutchogue Fire Department water rescue team answered the call in heroic fashion this summer.

July 6 was one of those early-summer days on eastern Long Island when everything seemed to promise better times ahead. The sky was a robin’s-egg blue, and for boaters, Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound were at their best, with only a light southwest breeze shivering the water.

At 5:10 p.m., four teenagers out on a boat in the Sound, northwest of Duck Pond Point in Cutchogue, ran into a serious problem: The propeller of their boat’s outboard motor became entangled with the anchor line.

Moments before this happened, two of those aboard — a boy and a girl — had jumped overboard for a late-afternoon swim. Neither was wearing a life jacket. Almost immediately, they were caught up in the strong current of a falling tide.

Benjamin Grodski, 18, quickly realized his friends were drifting away from the boat. Unable to start the motor, he called 911 on his cellphone to report that his boat was disabled and his friends were in the water and quickly being pulled away with the tide. 

The ensuing minutes were a master class in the dedication and training of Cutchogue Fire Department members and dispatchers at the Southold Town Police Department, who coordinated a rescue that saved two lives.

As Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley explained to The Suffolk Times at the time, “It was a matter of getting everyone involved — the fire department, our marine units, county aviation, the Coast Guard. And it all had to happen very quickly if the two people in the water were to be rescued.”

The effort to rescue the teens fell to four members of the Cutchogue Fire Department’s water-rescue team: Capt. Joe Hinton, Lt. Christian Figurniak, Lt. Ken Pearsall and Lt. Bryan Zissel.

But first they had to find them.

The rescuers launched a Zodiac from the beach at Duck Pond Point while officers positioned on land along the Sound scanned the water. A Suffolk County police helicopter was expected soon to help locate the swimmers.

Every minute was critical: Two teenagers without life jackets were being carried east on a falling tide. At 5:46 p.m., the Zodiac reached the disabled Grady-White. All was well there. But where were the other two?

The four first responders aboard the Zodiac then set out to find the missing swimmers in the wide expanse of the Sound. It is no exaggeration to say they were looking for the equivalent of a needle in a haystack. They scanned the water for a head bobbing above the water line.

But the four were water smart. Lt. Zissel explained their strategy: “We passed a number of lobster buoys and we could see the current was more northeast than due east. So we continued in that pattern. The speed of the outgoing tide was between two and three knots, so that told us how fast the two would be moving.”

Following the lobster buoys — the waterborne equivalent of bread crumbs in a forest — Capt. Hinton and Lt. Figurniak spotted the boy first. He was clinging for dear life to one of the buoys. The first responders could see he was thoroughly exhausted; it was clear he could not hold on for much longer. On the water, life — and death — can be counted in seconds, not minutes.

Lt. Zissel dove into the water with a life ring and held onto the boy, keeping his head above water. The others continued searching for the girl, finding her 200 yards to the east of the buoy, still afloat, her head inches above the waterline.

“She was completely exhausted,” said Capt. Hinton.

“Most people probably can’t tread water for more than 20 minutes,” said Lt. Pearsall. “Combine that with the sheer terror of being in the water like that. The water temperature was 73 degrees. A few degrees colder — if they’d gone for a swim later and it was dark when we got out there, or if the seas were rough — the conclusion could have been very different.”

The lessons of that rescue on Long Island Sound are many: how a well-trained fire department, even one in a small hamlet like Cutchogue, is an essential part of any community

The training of Capt. Hinton, Lt. Figurniak, Lt. Pearsall and Lt. Zissel saved two teenagers drifting out into open water on a summer day. For their dedication, their training and their heroic, very professional efforts on the Sound that day, they are The Suffolk Times’ People of the Year for 2023.

Previous Winners

2022: Erica Steindl
2021: Gabby Stroup
2020: Shari Hymes and Dr. Lawrence Walser
2019: Father Joe Staudt
2018: Mary Latham
2017: Eleanor Lingo
2016: Charles Reichert
2015: Kait’s Angels
2014: Jeff Heidtmann
2013: David Gamberg and Michael Comanda
2012: Southold Emergency Response Team
2011: Paul and Barbara Stoutenburgh
2010: Scott Russell
2009: Ryan Creighton
2008: North Fork NJROTC
2007: Maureen’s haven
2006: Southold Town Animal Shelter
2005: Ronnie Wacker
2004: Josh Horton
2003: Regina Maris Crew
2002: Colin Van Tuyl
2001: Frank LePré
2000: Ellie Hall
1999: Sister Margaret Smyth
1998: Reverend Lynda Clements
1997: Tim Caufield
1996: Dr. Micah Kaplan
1995: David Kappell
1994: Bob Levy
1993: Walter Dohm
1992: Reverend Summers
1991: Planning Conference
1990: 350th Committee
1989: Lynne Richards
1988: Franklin Bear
1987: Linda Graham