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Child uses fire safety training at Cutchogue East to help save man’s life

Jenifer Ponce knew what to do when her downstairs neighbor's apartment caught fire in the middle of the night. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Shy, with long dark hair and a huge smile that didn’t dim, Jenifer Ponce proudly displayed the framed news story her school gave her after they found out she was the little girl responsible for saving a man’s life two years ago.

Her mom, Gilma Garcia, recounted the fateful night of January 29, 2015 when she had to quickly wake up her then 7-year-old daughter and 6-month-old baby Joshua Garcia in the middle of the night and exit their second-floor residence on Middle Road barefoot or risk being suffocated by the thick smoke that was coming from their downstairs neighbor’s apartment, identified by police as Matej Petrak.

“It was one of the scariest moments of my life,” said Garcia who had moved to Riverhead only a few days prior to the incident. “I just remember getting the kids out and somehow dialing 911, but it was Jenifer who surprised me the most that night,” she said.

“I remembered not to panic, get out of the house, talk normally, and be assured that the fire department will handle things,” Jenifer said.

Jenifer Ponce and her little brother Joshua with their mother Gilma Garcia. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Her mother said that Jenifer had learned all about fire prevention just one week before at a volunteer fire department training program at her former school — Cutchogue East Elementary — and it was because of it that she was able to follow concrete steps that led to a happy conclusion.

“She had the presence of mind of saying the right thing and doing the right thing at the right time,” said Riverhead Fire Department Chief Kevin Brooks.

“If you think about the opposite of what happened…she saved that man’s life. She’s a hero without a doubt,” he said.

Garcia, who doesn’t speak English fluently, gave her cell phone to her daughter, who quickly followed protocol. Jenifer remembered from the fire prevention class that it was imperative to keep calm when faced with a dangerous situation, dial 911 and give them as much information as possible: a specific location, a brief description and most importantly, if there was still anyone inside that could possibly be trapped in a fire situation, a vital clue that takes an emergency call to the next level.

“From the dispatchers to the first responders, everybody in the chain of events did their job that night and it was all thanks to the information Jenifer provided,” Brooks said.

“I was very worried. I knew I had to tell the firefighters that there was a man inside,” said Jenifer.

By the time an unresponsive Petrak was rescued by ex-Chief Steve Beal, ex-Capt. J.R. Renten, First Lt. Kevin Burgess, and firefighter Anthony Chiaramonte, (see story) ambulances were already at the scene. Petrak was taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center and from there he was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital.

Inspired by the first successful rescue of an unconscious person from a burning building in more than 20 years, the fire department determined that Jenifer should be honored for her actions. However, when they went to look for her, she had vanished, said Brooks.

“We looked for her at the hospital, and we couldn’t find her. We didn’t have any information on her, we thought she probably had moved, but had no way to locate her,” said Brooks.

Almost by serendipity, the fire department found Jenifer less than 100 feet from their fire house at Roanoke Elementary School a year and a half after the fruitless search had started.

“It was an amazing moment,” said Bill Sanok, the Riverhead Fire Department Public Information Officer.

Sanok remembers vividly the moment during a regular volunteer fire prevention class last fall when, after he finished telling the incredible story of a little girl that had saved a man’s life by following the right steps a frigid winter night two years ago, kids started pointing excitedly to one of their classmates and saying “That’s Jenifer! The little girl is Jenifer! She’s here!”

Jenifer, who Sanok described as poised and quiet by nature, just smiled and confirmed it was her.

“I felt embarrassed at first, but then I felt like I did a good thing and that was great,” said Jenifer.

Sanok said that he always uses Jenifer’s story as a prime example of how effective is the fire prevention program.

“It goes to show you that training is effective. Kids are listening and paying attention,” said Sanok. “You can be a hero by doing ordinary things,” he said.

“We are very proud of her to call 911 the way she did,” Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said. “This is a testament to the fire department that in doing their training they are actually saving people’s lives,” he said.

Jenifer will be presented with a special award from the fire department and plaque and a proclamation from the town at the Riverhead Fire Department annual banquet May 19 at the Inn at East Wind.

“Like my mom always says, ‘you can buy another house, but you can’t buy another life again,’” said Jenifer.

Maria Piedrabuena
María, a multimedia reporter, graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in journalism and women and gender studies. She has worked for several news outlets including News12 and Fortune Magazine. A native of Spain, she loves to read, write and travel. She lives in Manorville. Email Maria