An hour into their meal at Legal Sea Foods at the Walt Whitman Shops on Saturday evening, a waitress leaned over to Perri Mekalainas' table to say they needed to evacuate.
At home in Syosset, Mekalainas and her 13-year-old son Christian collapsed when they later learned from the news that their favorite restaurant manager, Steven Nelson, arrived at Huntington Hospital in full cardiac arrest and died.
"My son's just devastated," she said Sunday. "He's been hysterically crying."
Nelson often delivered off-menu items to Christian, whose life-threatening food-allergies made eating out impossible.
In interviews yesterday, those who knew and worked with Nelson described him as a diligent general manager -- a mentor even -- dedicated to his job in a grueling restaurant world. He worked hard to build camaraderie among employees: At Legal Sea Foods, he asked them to high-five each other before shifts, a bartender said.
"He was truly a genuine, caring individual, and we really thought of him as an angel here on Earth," Mekalainas said. "He really gave my son an opportunity to do something he wouldn't be able to do otherwise."
Nelson, 55, of Copiague, was locked in a bathroom in the basement of the Huntington Station eatery as carbon monoxide seeped from a leaky pipe in the water heater, Huntington Town officials said, filling the room.
Employees became concerned when they couldn't find him, Roger Berkowitz, the restaurant chain's chief executive told reporters.
Nelson spent decades in the restaurant industry, working at other chains such as Ruth's Chris Steak House and Applebee's.
Nearly two decades ago, he met Jeanine Camporine, 45, of Mountainside, N.J., at an Olive Garden, where he was a general manager.
They worked together for about a year and stayed in touch. She often sought his opinions on her side business ventures.
"He really worked hard by setting an example," she said. "He was always very even keel."
Camporine, who left the restaurant industry about a decade ago, said he "taught me a lot how to treat people. I would work for him in a heartbeat."
John Restel, the Legal Sea Foods bartender, said Nelson was a jet-setter with a son in Japan. "He's been to Japan; he just got back from Israel," Restel, 26, said.
At the restaurant, Nelson always had an uplifting spirit in the mornings, Restel said.
Last summer, Nelson took notes and sat with Mekalainas and Christian to discuss his allergies to foods made with dairy, eggs and peanuts.
Nelson and the staff made the family feel comfortable. Waitresses knew Christian by name.
"He treated Christian like he would've treated his own son," Mekalainas said.
The Mekalainas family dined there once or twice a month.
On Saturday, before they arrived to celebrate Mekalainas' mother's belated 90th birthday, they called in the afternoon to see if Nelson was working. He wasn't feeling well, a manager said; he was probably leaving early.With Sarah Armaghan