Home Community Community News Forty years after deadly Greenport blaze, a community remembers its heroes

Forty years after deadly Greenport blaze, a community remembers its heroes

Richard Sycz, left, and Bruce Bellefountaine.

The funeral procession carrying the bodies of the two young Greenport firefighters seemed to go on forever. As it slowly made its way from St. Agnes Church to the cemetery, neighbors stood in front of their houses, watching in stunned silence.

Richard Allen Sycz, age 26, and Edward “Bruce” Bellefountaine, age 18, lost their lives in a Greenport house fire on June 11, 1977. The blaze started around 8:25 p.m. in a back bedroom on the first floor of the small house at 612 Carpenter Street. Sycz and Bellefountaine, both wearing Scott Air-Packs, went in to search for 10-year-old Anita Johnson, who the girl’s mother said was trapped in a second story bedroom. They became disoriented in the heavy smoke and their air ran out. They perished side-by-side on the bedroom floor.

In a terrible twist of fate, it was discovered that the young girl had left the residence earlier and was with her father the whole time, safe and sound.

According to news reports at the time, three other firefighters, Carl Ruroede, George Proferes, and Halsey Staples were injured in the fire but eventually recovered.

It was a shocking tragedy for the tight-knit community and 40 years later there are those who still can’t talk about it. Others found comfort in sharing their memories and wanted the younger generation in Greenport to know who the men were.

Andy Huzsek, Sycz’s close friend and a 45-year veteran of the Greenport Fire Department, remembers that day like it was yesterday, he says.

“My wife and I were sitting on the porch watching Richie play with his black Labrador, Flip,” he recalls. “They were playing on the grounds across the street when we heard the siren go off. Richie brought Flip home and the two of us rode to the fire on the same truck.”

“It wasn’t a big burner,” says Huzsek of the fire. “It was just so smoky and those old houses were like a maze. Richie and Bruce were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The memorial at the Third Street firehouse. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

Huzsek and Sycz had been buddies since early childhood; they grew up in the same neighborhood, playing baseball in the streets, hanging out. They served together in the Relief Hose Company #2 at the fire department, where Sycz had once been a captain. Sycz was in Huzsek’s wedding party and the painted portrait of Syzc hanging at the Third Street firehouse was created from a photo taken at the wedding.

“He was a real good guy, a person who’d do anything for you,” says Huzsek. “And he was some kind of athlete. He loved sports and he was good at everything he did.”

Greenport Mayor George Hubbard has fond memories of Sycz helping out at football practices.

“He was a big husky guy. He’d stop by practice and put on a helmet with no other equipment and just run the ball and we’d try to tackle him,” recalls Hubbard. “We’re all in full gear and trying to tackle him and all he had on was a helmet. He’d say, ‘C’mon guys, you have to try to stop me.’”

Not many could, he says.

Hubbard was just 17 years old at the time, working his way through fire school when the tragedy occurred. He recalls the wakes and the tremendous outpouring of grief in the village.

“I’ve never seen that many people at a wake in my life,” he says. “It went on for hours and hours, people lined up as far as you could see.” News reports said there were 3,000 firefighters from across Long Island in attendance.

Hubbard also remembers Bellefountaine; they were close in age and were casual friends.

“I used to see him downtown at the Arcade where he worked,” says Hubbard. “We hung out a few times. He was a great guy.”

Joe Barszczewski, a 51-year veteran of the Greenport Fire Department, was at the fire on Carpenter Street that night.

“There was so much smoke,” he recalls. “I remember Richie’s father Kazzie — he was a firefighter too — saying ’Where is Richie? I haven’t seen Richie.’”

Even after four decades, emotions are not far below the surface and Barszczewski pauses before continuing, remembering the frantic attempts to rescue and resuscitate the men and the shock over losing them.

Although Barszczewski didn’t know Bellefountaine very well, he calls him a “very, very nice and hardworking kid.”

“And Richie was one of a kind,” says Barszczewski. “What a guy. He and his father were more than just father and son. They were so close it wasn’t even funny. They were best friends.”

Kay Welch, who graduated with Bellefountaine, remembers Bruce well.

“He was the nicest guy, always full of energy and fun to be with,” she says. She and Bellefountaine worked on the yearbook together during their senior year.

“He was the business manager and took his job very seriously, securing ads for the back of the yearbook,” she says.

She clearly remembers being flagged over on her drive home from work and being told that the men had died in the fire.

“I could not believe what I had just heard,” she says.

The memorial in Mitchell Park. Photo: Chatty Allen

Bellefountaine, who was a member of the Phenix Hook & Ladder Company, had only been in the department for a few months before the tragedy. While in high school, he was an American Legion Boys State representative, class treasurer and a member of the Spanish Club and National Honor Society.

The night of the fire he was at St. Agnes Church, serving as an usher. He left the church immediately when he heard the siren.

Since the tragedy, several memorials have been erected in Greenport Village to honor the firefighters. There is a statue and plaque at the Third Street firehouse and a plaque near the carousel in Mitchell Park. Portraits of the men hang in the meeting room at the firehouse, both done by noted artist Andre Bouche, who also painted portraits of Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart and Bing Crosby.

On June 11, 2017 at 11 a.m. the Greenport Fire Department will hold a memorial ceremony at the Third Street firehouse, as they do every year.

Sycz’s cousin, Dot Mellas, invites everyone in the community to attend the ceremony.

“He was a good kid and well liked by everyone. His mom, dad and half-brother have all passed away; there’s no one to carry on his name,” she says. “It would be nice to have more people show up at the memorial service.”

Note: In news reports and on memorial plaques, Richard Sycz is identified as being 27 years old at the time of his death. In fact, he was born July 17, 1950 and died a month short of his 27th birthday. 

Katharine is a writer and photographer who has lived on the North Fork for nearly 40 years, except for three-plus years in Hong Kong a decade ago, working for the actor Jackie Chan. She lives in Cutchogue. Email Katharine