East Northport resident Evelyn Cohen woke up in the middle of an April night to the smell of smoke, gasping for air as she opened a window.
The home Cohen, 77, shared with her husband, Harold, 76, was ablaze. Flames licking up the back of the Penfield Drive split-level were strong enough to trigger a neighbor’s doorbell camera. Cohen called for her husband while struggling to breathe through a bedroom window, but her screams were stifled by dark billowing smoke.
The couple's home was destroyed and it took the life of their pet cat, but they both survived, courtesy of Commack firefighters who arrived just after 3 a.m. April 22 and put their lives at risk to save the Cohens'.
On Tuesday night, after months of hospitalization and rehabilitation for smoke inhalation, the Cohens visited the Commack firehouse to thank Third Assistant Chief Christopher Ciaccio and other rescuers and recall that harrowing predawn ordeal.
“I'm so happy to finally meet the man who saved my life," Cohen said to Ciaccio after she and her husband arrived at the firehouse on Jericho Turnpike.
The Cohens and members of the fire department planned the visit as a surprise for Ciaccio during Tuesday night's fire district meeting. Cohen hugged Ciaccio, and other firefighters presented her with flowers.
“It was a surreal experience tonight and great to see her up and well,” Ciaccio said. “We never really see the outcome after we get onto the trucks and wait for the next alarm.”
The Cohens are now living in a hotel with only their clothes and a few belongings while they wait to hopefully recover what was lost in the fire through insurance, as well as $514,000 needed to rebuild their home.
Cohen said the fire changed her perspective on life, leading her to think positively after having to learn to talk and breathe again after she was on a ventilator from the fire.
"I've come a long way. When I say I came alive again, that's how I feel," Cohen said. "I know I have family and friends and love and health. These are the things there is no price for. I don't have things, but they'll come. I have one pair of shoes and they're getting me around."
Nearly three months back, Ciaccio and his crew of Commack firefighters, who were the first to respond to the blaze, arrived to find the Cohens' home in flames. Neighbors who called 911 reported the couple was inside.
Firefighter Andy Stiles pried open the front door with a crowbar. Ciaccio crawled through the flames and up the stairs, where he found Cohen in a bedroom. He lifted her out of the eight-foot window and handed her over to Suffolk County police officers, who used a neighbor’s ladder to bring her down.
Cohen said she suddenly felt the firefighter lift her up and out of the window to a waiting police officer. Other firefighters helped her husband to safety from a back room.
"I want to convey my heartfelt thank you from the bottom of my heart and my soul for not only me, but my family and my friends who prayed for me to pull through,” Cohen said. “None of their prayers would come into play if I hadn’t gotten out of my bedroom window. So again, thank you. You are my hero.”
Ciaccio said he waded through fire from the front door and crawled through flames as the kitchen, hallway and living room were ablaze.
He looked back at a wall of flames behind him after he rescued Cohen.
“When you’re going through it, you’re not thinking about much,” Ciaccio said. “This is the reason we push ourselves through training."