Andrew T. Wittman Jr., severely burned while battling a brush fire in 1952, didn’t let the horrific episode define him.
Instead, the teenager went on to forge a life filled with public service, spending 67 years as a Brentwood firefighter — most of them as the department’s honorary chief — and working as a state court clerk and a Suffolk County firearms instructor.
"All who were fortunate enough to have known Andy would tell you that he was a great man,” said his daughter, Jennifer Wittman-Cahill.
Wittman died June 12 at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center in Patchogue, according to his daughter, a school teacher from Blue Point.
He was 84. Wittman had suffered multiple strokes over the last few years.
When he was 18, Wittman was among about 600 firefighters who labored for hours on May 4, 1952, to control a forest fire that cut a wide swath from Dix Hills to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood, which at the time was named Pilgrim State Hospital.
Wittman and six other firefighters were cutting a fire lane on the east side of Commack Road in an attempt to head off the inferno, which at one point was three miles wide, before it could reach the psychiatric hospital, then the world’s largest mental institution, according to a news account. A 40-mph wind shifted suddenly, trapping Wittman and two other men and destroying their truck.
Martin Ames, 33, of Brentwood, and Charles Elliott, 47, of Manhattan, died days after the brush fire. Wittman, who suffered first- and second-degree burns, underwent 21 reconstructive and plastic surgeries to repair his nose, ear and hands, his daughter said.
“Although it was inevitable that this horrible event would forever change him, he forged a pathway of success as a survivor,” she said.
Born Sept. 29, 1933 in Brentwood, Wittman graduated from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn in 1951, his daughter said. He married Rose Marie Sanguedolce in 1966 and the couple moved to Bayport, where they raised three children.
Wittman joined the Islip Town Police Department in 1954, before there was a Suffolk County Police Department, and left after two years, his daughter said.
For most of his working years, Wittman held three jobs, said his daughter. During the weekday, Wittman worked full-time as a state court clerk. At night, he worked as a security guard, and on the weekends, he worked as a Suffolk County firearms instructor.
As a kid, Wittman-Cahill remembered spending weekends watching her father train police officers and occasionally dispense advice, one piece of which stayed with her.
“It’s too bad that youth is wasted on the young,” she remembered her father telling her. “I never fully understood it until I was no longer there.”
Later, she said she and her father laughed about it.
After Wittman’s retirement in 1990, his daughter said he gave his time to several organizations, including the Bayport-Blue Point Board of Education, where he was a trustee for 15 years, helping to guide a multimillion-dollar budget through most of the 1990s and 2000s. Wittman, his daughter said, also had a hand in launching Bayport-Blue Point High School’s first bowling team.
In addition to his daughter, Wittman is survived by his wife, Rose Marie Wittman, of Bayport; a second daughter, Christine Doucet, of West Sayville; a son, Andrew Wittman III, of Sayville, and seven grandchildren.
Burial was June 16 at St. Lawrence the Martyr Roman Catholic Cemetery in Sayville.