William Hille and two other veteran firefighters battling a blaze in a Manorville thicket knew when flames rushed toward them that it was time to bail out of their truck -- and run.
Hille had been clutching two hoses as he stood on the back of the brush truck at mid-afternoon Monday, trying to douse what was then a minor fire near Brookhaven National Laboratory.
"At first it was a small fire. The wind picked it up and it got real big real quick. It joined the little fires and made them into a big fire," he said.
A sudden gust of wind thrust the flames into their faces and forced them to jump through a wall of fire, said Hille, a 17-year veteran Manorville firefighter and one of the volunteer department's commissioners.
"It just engulfed us," he said. "The fire was on the driver's side of the truck and then it just encircled the truck.
"You could hear loud bangs. It was the tires exploding."
Bandages still on his hands, ears and face, Hille, 35, described his close call Tuesday night at his in-laws' home in East Moriches after being released from Stony Brook University Medical Center's burn unit, where he was treated for first- and second-degree burns.
Hille's colleagues, Jim McGarry and Tom Costello, also were treated at the hospital Monday for smoke inhalation suffered while fighting what Suffolk officials described as the biggest fire in the county since 1995.
"It was a pretty serious situation they went through," said Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko. "They're all heroes."
Hille said he didn't feel much like a hero during the ordeal.
"I've never been so scared," said Hille, who is a New York City correction officer on Rikers Island and works in fire safety there.
Manorville Fire Chief Elio Zapparrata said the entire department became worried when other firefighters discovered the charred brush truck, its engine still running after the men had abandoned it in the woods.
"It was scary because we lost communication with them," he said.
After the men got away from the burning vehicle, they scrambled to a pond and reasoned that they could jump into it if the flames continued approaching, Hille said. But they soon decided to keep going.
"It got pretty rough," said Rich Schmidt, a Manorville fire commissioner. "They had to find a way to get out."
For more than two hours they walked north through the brush, toward Route 25.
"They walked over three miles when a helicopter finally spotted them," and picked them up, said Manorville Assistant Chief Howard Snow.
After he arrived at the hospital, Hille took a moment to send a text to his Manorville family -- he is married and has a young daughter -- to let them know that he was doing fine.
"That's how we knew he was OK," said the wounded firefighter's father, William Hille Sr.
For the Hilles, firefighting is a true family affair: The father and his other three sons, Mike Hille, James Hille and Charles Hille, all volunteer with the Manorville Fire Department -- the senior Hille for the 31 years.
In fact, all four brothers were dispatched to the fire.
Chief Zapparrata called Hille "a great fireman," and about the hundreds of firefighters countywide who took part in the operation, he added, "Everyone was brave."
With Kevin Deutsch