By Kitty Merrill
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There was just one family living at the house when fire ripped through the residence on Greenfield Road in Shinnecock Hills last week. Marked by a massive explosion that sent flames shooting out the windows of the two-story home, the December 4 blaze destroyed the structure and injured an inhabitant.
It could have been a lot worse.
According to Chief Town Investigator David Betts, the site has been on town police and code enforcement radar for years, with complaints running the gamut from overcrowded occupancy to drug activity. Spurred by yet another round of grievances, last summer, during the early morning hours of August 2, town police, code enforcement and staff from the Suffolk County Health Department converged on the property to conduct a search warrant.
What they found was, according to town attorney Tiffany Scarlato, "a pretty bad scene." There were people living in tents and campers in the yard, human feces, raw sewage and syringes visible on the grounds of the property. Multiple living spaces delineated by tarps were discovered in the basement, while the rest of the house appeared to be converted into another four or five living areas, Betts reported. Officials said it was difficult to pin down the exact number of people staying at the place; estimates ranged from a low of 20 to a high of 27. "It was definitely a disaster waiting to happen," he asserted. In any given year, Betts said his department executes an average of 75 search warrants.
Between 30 and 40 charges were issued relating to the Greenfield Road abode. As soon as the extent of the public safety issues were revealed, Scarlato said her office commenced efforts to obtain a restraining order in Supreme Court. The county's Department of Social Services was called in to ensure displaced residents were able to obtain emergency shelter.
The order, requiring everyone but the family living in one lawful apartment to decamp, may have been a lifesaver. In a release following last week's fire Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst noted, "The efforts of the Town's Code Enforcement Division to shut down this house and return it to its legal one family use prevented a massive tragedy . . . If people had been still occupying the basement at the time of the fire, there is no doubt we would be talking about mass casualties."
"There are strict building requirements for having living space in basements," Councilwoman Christine Preston Scalera, co-chair of the Town's Quality of Life Task Force added. "In the event of an emergency like this type of fire, the proper structural configuration of stairs, windows and walls is vital to providing occupants with multiple means of egress to prevent being trapped by smoke and fire. The basement of this house was illegally converted and failed to provide any alternative means of egress for any occupant. Without last summer's efforts of the Town Code Enforcement Division, Town Police and the Town Attorney's Office to build and win the case for the temporary restraining order, anyone down there would have been trapped and faced imminent harm."
Even with the decreased occupancy, the December 4 blaze was not without danger. Councilman Jim Malone emphasized, "We owe a great deal of gratitude to the volunteer fire fighters and ambulance workers who responded to this incident. It was only through the quick and brave response of these first responders that lives were saved. In particular, the heroic actions of Southampton Volunteer Fire Department Chief Chris Brenner, a Southampton Town employee assigned to the Town Police communications division, in risking his own safety to help extinguish an individual whose clothes and hair were on fire when he was first to arrive on scene deserves special commendation."
The house, rendered uninhabitable by the conflagration, is still the focus of a case in justice court, with violations pending, Scarlato said. The owner didn't live there.