As Residents Return, Investigators Trying To Determine How Blaze Started

MANORVILLE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) —  The Long Island firefighter who took on a wall of flames battling a massive brush fire that burned more than 1,000 acres of the Pine Barrens was back at home on Wednesday.

William Hille was one of three firefighters trapped on a brush truck Tuesday morning after the fast-moving fire surrounded them. He was released from the hospital later that night.

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PHOTOS: Long Island Brush Fire

“I’m just grateful to be alive and I’m glad we got off. Just look on the back of the truck and there’s nothing left there. We’re still here. I think we made the right move,” Hille told CBS 2’s Lou Young on Wednesday.

“The guys just ran for their lives through the woods,” added Manorville Deputy Fire Chief Howard Snow. “They ended up diving into a pond as the fire went past them.”

1010 WINS’ Mona Rivera reports

Nursing a burned right hand, face and ears, Hille, a volunteer firefighter, seemed annoyed that the brush fire got the best of him and his partners.

“When you run away it’s hard to feel like a hero,” Hille said.

However, Deputy Chief Snow said act heroically was exactly what Hille and the others did.

“He doesn’t want to play the hero, but he like everyone else who stayed and fought the fire is a hero for staying alive. He and those other guys came within inches of losing their lives,” Snow said.

WCBS 880’s Mike Xirinachs reports

Hille’s unit was the first on the scene and after their stump-jumper became overwhelmed by the fast-moving fire, his crew realized it was no match for the wall of flame that bore down on it.

“It was really scary,” Hille said. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not. The fire crept up on us and got so big I couldn’t fight it back anymore so we decide to abandon.”

“It’s an eerie feeling. I started bringing more of the fear we had in the woods. I just can’t believe we made it out of this,” added Hille’s partner, George McGarry.

That meant running through the wall of flame to try and get upwind “into the black,” as they call it.  Every instinct said run the other way but the only way to safety was just the opposite.

Burned and hurting, Hille walked upwind toward a pond to wait for help that arrived three hours later.

“I wanted to keep moving.  When we were sitting at the pond, that’s when the pain really hit me. I wanted to just keep moving because when I was moving I wasn’t thinking about it,” Hille said.

Hille is a corrections officer at Rikers Island. He has been volunteering with the Manorville Fire Department for nearly two decades.

His two partners escaped with only minor burns.

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Meanwhile, a state of emergency remains in effect in Suffolk County. The fire is now under control.

“We might get a little flare up along the edges today, we really don’t expect it but if we do well put it out like we always do,” Snow said.

Investigators said the blaze, which destroyed nine homes and several businesses, may have been started by someone burning trash or leaves.

Brush Fire Damage - Manorville, NY - Apr 10, 2012 (credit: Mike Xirinachs / WCBS 880)

Brush Fire Damage - Manorville, NY - Apr 10, 2012 (credit: Mike Xirinachs / WCBS 880)

Crews were still hosing down a handful of hotspots in the woods around Manorville on Wednesday, as shell-shocked residents returned to assess the things the fire took and things it left behind. Fear and gratitude lived side by side.

“It took pieces of our lives, but you know what? They are pieces we can replace again. It’s a good thing. We have each other,” resident Sheryl Smith told CBS 2’s Young.

Most evacuees were returning to find their old lives pretty much intact. Some lost possessions, like a car, a boat or a backyard shed, but for others everything has changed.

The Moretti family suddenly finds itself homeless. After 25 years of independence on one block friends were bringing them donations of clothing and food.

“I have some ham, turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomato heroes and we have water to drink so I think were in good shape,” said resident Sharon Bontempi, who thanked her neighbor, “Jane,” for the help.

“It’s a little embarrassing. I know it shouldn’t be, but it’s embarrassing,” George Moretti said of getting help from others.

So count pride as a victim of the fire, as well as that sense of security we all take for granted in good times. It’s tough when the only shelter and working power outlets are in your vehicle.

“Charging my phone, trying to find a quiet moment. Waiting for the insurance adjuster. The whole thing is starting to be a little overwhelming now,” Kathleen Moretti said.

Even the animals were shell-shocked. Pets fled when the flames approached and some haven’t returned. Volunteers were trying to coax them back.

“We’re going to make it very conducive and hopefully very happy for them to come back. We’re going to put that big steak dinner with some sardines out and stuff to try to bring them back home to make them feel comfortable,” said Karen Vonick of the group Guardians of Rescue.

On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the work of hundreds of firefighters prevented what could have been a major disaster.

“It could have been worse,” he said. “If you lose control of a fire that large, that’s moving on that many fronts, it could have been a true tragedy.”

Cuomo said the emergency declaration would help clear the way for the state to provide financial assistance to local officials. The governor also stated that the response was an example of a case where “government acted better than you could have expected.”

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