Ian Weslek, a Shelter Island contractor, was with his wife, celebrating his 41st birthday with a late dinner.
They met at Sweet Tomatoes, a restaurant in Shelter Island Heights, dined, and drove home in separate cars Wednesday night. On the way, they saved the lives of two people who might have burned to death had Victoria Weslek not seen a red glow in the woods off North Ferry Road, police said.
"They saw something was wrong. Smoke and flames were coming out of the roof," Shelter Island Police Chief James J. Read said.
Ian Weslek didn't notice anything until the lights of his wife's car had disappeared from his rearview mirror about 10 p.m. "I turned left to go to our house, and she wasn't behind me," he said. It took three calls to her cellphone before she answered and told him there was a fire at the Belle Crest Inn. "She saw flames coming out of the roof," he said.
Now an Inn, the grand Victorian was constructed as a guesthouse in the early 1900s. Its owners, Yvonne and Herbert Loinig, were the only ones inside and may have been asleep when the fire started, authorities said.
No one was injured. Shelter Island officials said the fire was caused by "a compromised interior brick and mortar chimney."
The Wesleks knew the single car in the driveway belonged to the Loinigs. Ian Weslek ran to the front door while his wife called authorities. He banged and yelled until the couple opened the front door and escaped with their pet dog.
"We kept them away from the building until the police and firemen arrived. It was quick. Four minutes tops. The response was incredible," said Ian Weslek, who had served as a fireman on a wood-hulled minesweeper in the U.S. Navy and knew how quickly a fire can spread in a wood-frame structure. "I know smoke can kill you. I was happy my wife saw it. Ten minutes can make a huge difference," he said.
Victoria Weslek, 33, said she pulled over instinctively when she noticed something awry. "I was just in the right place at the right time," she said.
Firefighters took two hours to control the flames. Firefighters from Greenport took the ferry to Shelter Island to assist, while others from Sag Harbor crossed on another ferry, to cover the island's firehouse.
The third-story attic was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived, and the blaze caused substantial damage, police say. Shelter Island fire officials could not be reached Thursday for a dollar estimate, and the Loinigs couldn't be reached.
The Wesleks, who knew the Loinigs only casually before the fire, returned Thursday to see if they could help, along with several other residents. "This is a small community, and everyone cares for everyone else. That's what makes Shelter Island special," the contractor said.
"We went back . . . just to see if they were OK, if they needed anything with the approaching storm. They have a big mess on their hands now."