Holbrook Assistant Chief Rick Gimbl was on his way home from the firehouse a few minutes before 1 a.m. on Feb. 5 when he got a page about a fire at a trailer park on Lincoln Avenue. He headed straight over.
Heavy snows had nearly blocked the narrow lanes, and Gimbl, who retired three years ago as a New York City firefighter, was looking for a place to park when residents rushed out shouting someone was trapped.
He ditched his chief's car in a snowbank, suited up and broke in the door.
A wall of flame blocked the way, and temperatures inside were already somewhere between 300 and 500 degrees.
Trailer fires burn fast, hot and deadly: The ceilings are so low, the rooms are so small and the synthetic materials used to build them go up so swiftly, they are often beyond saving before fire crews arrive.
Gimbl, 53, reverted to the procedures drummed into him from his first days as an 18-year-old Holbrook volunteer. He got down low, below the worst smoke and heat. He conducted a systematic search with his hand on the wall to keep his bearings. The living room was empty.
He turned back toward the flames, spraying pressurized water from an extinguisher to make a gateway, and crawled through it to the other half of the trailer.
He soon came upon the looming bulk of 34-year-old James McGuire unconscious in the hallway. He felt for and found a pulse, then radioed fellow volunteers that he had a victim. Still crawling, he muscled the 280-pound man toward the door, keeping one hand on the wall. He handed him over the threshold to the arriving engine crew.
McGuire was rushed to intensive care with burns over 70 percent of his body, including his lungs and trachea. It was touch and go for a while, with three weeks at the hospital and skin grafts on a leg.
He has since moved into an apartment and gone back to work.
"He still does have a problem on and off with his lungs," said his mother, Alyce McGuire of Farmingville. "... He was very lucky. They said another five minutes and he would've been dead."
Gimbl, too, went to the hospital with chest pains. Inside of five minutes, he had gone from calmly driving to hauling an inert body through piercing heat while breathing through a mask and carrying tanks of water and oxygen.
Heart attacks, not burns or falls, are the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths among U.S. firefighters.
He got a Hallmark card from McGuire's mother after the fire, thanking him for saving her son's life.
"In my eyes, you are a hero," she wrote.
His wife, on the other hand, "thinks I'm nuts," Gimbl said.
"She says I'm too old. ... I guess I'm not ready to stop ... I just feel my community needs it. I get a satisfaction from helping people."