The woman who died tragically in a house fire in Southold this morning was a well-known figure in the feminist movement who left a rich legacy.
Although police have not yet officially released the victim’s identity, multiple sources, including friends, her pastor, and Southold Fire Chief Peggy Killian confirmed that the woman, who was wheelchair-dependent and who lost her life was Sidney Abbott, 77, a world-renowned crusader in the women’s movement and co-author of “Sappho Was a Right-on Woman: A Liberated View of Lesbianism”; the book was written with Barbara Love in 1971.
According to the Southold Fire Department, the fire broke out at 435 Willow Pond Lane, Abbott’s home, at approximately 10:45 a.m. Wednesday.
The Southold Town Police dispatch center was advised of a house fire at the above location by a private fire alarm company.
Killian said former Southold Fire Chief George Berry, Abbott’s next-door neighbor, tried valiantly to enter the house to save Abbott, who was home alone; he was “turned back by flames and heavy smoke,” a release from the Southold Police Department said.
Once fire department personnel entered the home, they found the female occupant of the house on the first floor; Killian said she was found in the living room, sitting in a recliner, a wheelchair nearby. Abbott had a home health aide who had already left for the day, Killian said.
Her dog, Killian said, was at the kennel and survived the blaze; a cat’s body was found at the scene.
Southold detectives, Suffolk County arson and homicide squads and the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office are all investigating the fire. Greenport and Cutchogue Fire Departments also responded to assist.
Describing the blaze, Killian said she believed Abbott may possibly still have been alive when fire personnel arrived, and described the feeling of grief that ensued. “We tried to pull her out,” she said. “There’s this feeling of helplessness. It’s very sad.”
Although Berry ran home to get his tools and try to break down the door, Killian said the heat was too intense. “It was bad,” she said.
The flames, she said, flashed over; the heat was so fierce it melted the smoke detectors off the ceiling, Killian said. “It was that hot,” she said. “It was horrible.”
Abbott was also a member of the First Universalist Church of Southold, which burned to the ground in March. She was a fellow parishioner of Peggy Richards, who also lost her home in a tragic blaze in February and had been living in the church’s parsonage when First Univeralist burned down.
Richards reflected today on Abbott’s loss: “When I met Sydney Abbott, she had an amazing presence about her, powerful and demanding,” she said.
In later years, illness kept Abbott from church, she said. Before Abbott became housebound, “she tried to start a film series at the church and a ‘Coffee Party’ club in response to the Tea Party — she wouldn’t even serve tea. She compromised with hot chocolate for those who didn’t like coffee,” Richards said.
Abbott was a former member of the Southold Democratic Committee.
“Sidney was a classic Democrat. She had strong opinions and came down on the side of working people, women and minorities. Sidney was very intelligent and could hold her own on most subjects. She has not been active in our party for a number of years, but when she was she had her say,” said Southold Democratic Party Chair Art Tillman.
According to online sources, Abbott attended Holton-Arms School and graduated in 1955, had a brilliant career as a feminist, lesbian activist, and author; she was a former member of the Lavender Menace and was a well-known member of the National Organization of Women. She also served on the founding board of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and was co-chair for the New York Performing Arts Center, also serving in New York City government, online sources said.
According to First Universalist parishioner Peter Young, “She was an outspoken person and she loved the church, which we lost last month.”
Gamblee agreed that Abbott’s death in the fire was devastating to all those who knew her, coming so soon after the blaze that destroyed the church. “It’s astonishing,” he said.
Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said this morning that the fire did not appear suspicious.