A fire department chaplain who offered spiritual guidance to his fellow volunteers collapsed outside a burning bagel cafe in Huntington Station Wednesday and died after being rushed to a hospital, according to officials.
Richard Holst, 60, a 31-year member of the Huntington Manor Fire Department and head of the state's fire chaplain association, who visited the sick and consoled the bereaved, collapsed minutes after he reported the cafe fire.
Wednesday, firefighters in T-shirts bearing the department logo gathered at the Huntington Station home Holst shared with his wife, Noreen, a few minutes' drive from the heavily damaged cafe, where fire officials looked for the cause of a blaze that ripped through the business before dawn.
"He was one of the most loving, caring lay chaplains we've ever had in the association," said the Rev. Kenneth Hessel, who served with Holst on the State Association of Fire Chaplains.
"He had a big heart for the men and women of his department, to be there with them through both the joys and sorrows of life," he said.
Police said Holst, who no longer fought fires, had been at the firehouse following a previous call and was probably walking home when he saw smoke pouring from the Uber Cafe on Depot Road. He called the department directly just after 3 a.m. as another 911 call came in.
Just after members of his department arrived and broke into the shop, Holst, who was outside watching, collapsed in front of the building. He was taken to Huntington Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
While the circumstances of his collapse suggest a heart attack, police said, the cause of death has not yet been determined. Holst's wife said he was in good health and had an annual physical exam in recent weeks.
He had been the captain of the department's Fire Police Squad, which, among other tasks, helps regulate access and traffic at a fire scene.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation. "We don't have anything to make it look suspicious at this time," said Det. Lt. Jack Fitzpatrick. Detectives continued to interview witnesses and people connected with the business through the day.
Nathan Khaimov, who said he has run the business in that location for about a year and a half, was in the parking lot early Wednesday, pacing and smoking. He said he had been interviewed by an arson investigator.
"Right now, we don't know anything. They won't even let me into the store," Khaimov said.
Robert Herley, chief of the Huntington Manor department, said he had known Holst for 22 years. "He was always there for everyone," he said. "Sick, injured, no matter the case may be, he was making a phone call, coming to the hospital to visit members who were injured or sick. He was a stand-up gentleman."
Assistant Fire Chief Fred Steenson Jr., an 18-year veteran who responded to Holst's call Wednesday, had just left the burning building and was conferring with another firefighter when he saw his comrade fall.
"You don't want to see something like this happen, a guy dying in the line of duty," he said. Steenson described Holst as a "die-hard firefighter" who had no plans to retire. "His heart was into this."
Gov. David A. Paterson said in a written statement that Holst served all New York firefighters as the state's chief chaplain. "On behalf of all New Yorkers, my condolences and prayers go to Chaplain Holst's wife, Noreen, and his entire family," Paterson said.
Before Khaimov bought the cafe, the bagel store had been leased by the victim of a domestic shooting and her husband, Ann and Robert Anderson, records show. Robert Anderson was convicted in March of shooting to death his estranged wife in 2007 as she worked behind the counter of another bagel shop they ran in Huntington.
With Michael Frazier, Sophia Chang, Joseph Mallia
and Matthew Chayes