The night before graduation, a group of seniors at the high school in Port Jefferson who are also volunteer firefighters were joking about what they would do if a fire broke out in town during the event.
The next day, it really happened.
Minutes after the official ceremony ended Friday about 7:30 p.m., as the students were taking photos with family and friends on a field in front of the high school, the fire siren went off three times, and alerts started sounding and vibrating on their cellphones.
This was not just a routine check for someone’s fire alarm going off by accident. It was the real thing.
“That’s when my heart jumped out of my chest,” said Peter Rizzo, 17, one of the volunteers.
Four of the six, all full-fledged volunteers since turning 17, started running toward the firehouse a few blocks away, still wearing their graduation gowns and carrying their diplomas. Two drove.
At the firehouse, they tore off their gowns, rapidly donned their firefighter gear, and leapt onto the waiting trucks, which whisked them to a burning detached garage on Arlington Avenue.
At the scene, where the air was hazy with smoke and neighbors milled about, Rizzo commandeered a nozzle — a key job as the first person inside the garage — and tamped down the fire.
Others helped tear apart walls and ceilings looking for hidden spots where the fire might have still been burning, or could catch on fire.
Soon, the blaze was under control.
Port Jefferson gets only one or two fires a year in its small district, officials said, so for one to fall on graduation day was remarkable — and made for a once-in-a-lifetime story for the graduates.
“It was just an adrenaline rush,” said Andrew Patterson, 18, who was helping control the hose. “We don’t get a ton of real working fires and so it was exciting.”
The Port Jefferson Fire Department knew it was a “real deal” and not just an alarm going off because several neighbors were calling in with reports of a fire, officials said.
Christian Neubert, assistant chief of the department and a teacher in the local public school system, said the students performed admirably.
“They were nice and calm. Nobody was running. Nobody was yelling,” Neubert said. “Everything was just really impressive.”
For some, it was the first live fire they had ever responded to.
“They instantly have a lot more credibility because they went, they handled an emergency in a very professional and safe way,” he added. “The next time we have another emergency like that these guys are going to be held in higher regard because they can do the job.”
The students said that the night before graduation, as they were hanging out at their favorite spot — the firehouse — they joked about what they would do if a fire broke out during the ceremony.
Hunter Volpi, 17, remembered thinking: “I’m only leaving if it’s an actual real deal. And it was.”
His mother was not particularly happy as he fled the post-ceremony photo-and-hugs session in front of the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School, since they also had a family dinner planned at a restaurant.
“At first my mom did not want me to go,” he said. “But my dad talked her into letting me go.”
It was a quick conversation.
“My dad told my mom, ‘He’s going,’ and I was halfway across the field” by then, Volpi said.
“I was pumped,” he added.
When he finally showed up at the restaurant by 9:15 p.m., his parents said, “You better have a story to tell us. And I’m like, ‘I do.’”
Ryan Parmegiani, 18, remembered one of the volunteers flying past him and yelling, “Dude we gotta work, it’s a structure fire.”
Kasumi Layne-Stasik, 18, said she took off so quickly she completely forgot about some friends she was supposed to give a ride home to after the ceremony.
The high school students have been full-fledged volunteers in the department for between a year and 18 months, Neubert said. Most joined the department’s junior program at 14.
Like adult volunteers, they go through extensive training, including most Sundays at the fire house and some days at the Suffolk County Fire Academy in Yaphank, Neubert said.
“But you don’t know how somebody is going to perform until they’re actually out there doing it,” he said. “I’m incredibly proud of them.”
Shane Hartig, 18, said it was a night he will never forget.
“We always as firefighters dream of this moment,” he said. “A real fire.”