High school seniors race from graduation to fight a fire
It was mere minutes after Andrew Patterson's high school graduation ceremony had concluded. But rather than posing for pictures in his cap and gown, Patterson, 18, and five of his classmates suddenly found themselves sprinting to the local fire station.
As active volunteer members of the Port Jefferson Fire Department - which serves the tiny town of Port Jefferson on the North Shore of Long Island - the six students received an urgent notification about a fire nearby. They were dressed in graduation apparel, ready to celebrate the milestone with family and friends. Instead, they raced to the call.
"I unzipped my gown as I was running," recalled Patterson, who held his diploma in one hand and his cap in the other as he bolted to the fire station a few blocks away on June 24, just after 7:30 p.m.
His Port Jefferson High School classmate and fellow firefighter, Kasumi Layne-Stasik, was running, too - clutching a congratulatory bouquet of blue flowers. She removed her earrings and necklace while she ran.
"I didn't think twice about it," said Layne-Stasik, 18.
Once they got to the firehouse, the students quickly put on their protective gear, and in a matter of minutes they were on a firetruck, headed to the scene of a home about half a mile away. A fire had erupted in the garage.
"It was somewhat extraordinary circumstances," said Patterson, explaining that the proximity of the graduation ceremony at the high school to the fire station, and likewise, the fire station's nearness to the blaze, made it a seamless effort. "Speed is very important. We like to get there fast."
"It's a bustle, but things get done, and it's a really cool experience," echoed Layne-Stasik.
Within an hour, the flames were extinguished, and no one was injured. The cause of the fire is under investigation by the village fire marshal, the Port Jefferson Fire Department said.
Patterson has been a volunteer with the fire department since he was 14. He participated in a junior training program, and in February 2021, he officially became a firefighter. He has responded to several fires and other emergency situations since.
"When you think of firefighters, you don't typically think of 17- or 18-year-olds," said Patterson, adding that he and other trainees went through rigorous training - including lectures and hands-on exercises - before officially becoming members of the department. "I definitely like the aspect of helping people. It's nice to actually make a positive impact."
Like Patterson, Layne-Stasik also signed up for the department's junior program - for which she is now an adviser - at age 14. She was the only girl of the eight students in her grade to join.
"I never feel singled out or anything like that," she said. "I just love being part of it."
Christian Neubert, the Port Jefferson assistant fire chief, was on duty on graduation day. Had the students not acted as quickly as they did, he said, the outcome of the fire might not have been as favorable.
"The theory is that fire will double in size every 30 seconds," said Neubert, who is also a middle school teacher and taught five of the six seniors when they were younger. "Seeing them come up through the whole fire service has been really rewarding."
The Port Jefferson Fire Department has about 60 active members, and is a volunteer-only organization.
"Nobody gets paid, and of these kids, many of them have jobs," Neubert said. They were also full-time students. "They're really dedicated. They respond to everything that they can."
Active members of the fire department receive general alarms on their phones and pagers, and once a qualified crew arrives at the fire station, the response effort begins.
"It's almost like a first-come, first-serve," Neubert explained. "If they didn't respond because they were at graduation, everybody would have understood."
Even though it was a momentous day for the six students, "they are highly motivated," Neubert said, adding that he was not surprised that they all swiftly sprang to action. "In our current day and age, there is a perception that kids aren't like they used to be with having drive and motivation. This goes against that."
"We're talking about the nicest kids that you can possibly ask for," Neubert continued. "I couldn't say enough about them. They've brought so much life to the firehouse."
School administrators shared the same sentiment.
"This is a milestone event in their lives, and even that didn't stop them from serving their community, as they've done countless times throughout their lives," said Robert Neidig, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Port Jefferson School District. "We couldn't be prouder."
The students are all heading to college next year, and a few are staying local. Still, they say they will all remain active members of the fire department, and whenever they come home to Port Jefferson for breaks, they plan to continue responding to fire calls and other emergency situations.
Although their graduation festivities were cut short, the students said they wouldn't have had it any other way. For Layne-Stasik, reporting for duty mid-celebration to support her community made graduating even more gratifying.
"The transition from us throwing all our caps up and then immediately running to help, that was the most memorable moment for me," Layne-Stasik said.
"It was a very good day," he said.