‘I Owe Them My Life’

Surprise thank-you for ‘heroes,’ 3 years later
George Lombardi and his wife Antonia, third and second from right, held “a heroes dinner” for those who he said helped save his life. They are from left, East Hampton Fire Department Chief Gerard Turza Jr., Ian Hoyt, in back, Nick Calace, Suzy Dayton, and Barbara Hansen, far right.

Three years ago, George Lombardi survived being crushed in an accident at a building supply yard. He spent nearly 100 days in the hospital and endured dozens of surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy. Throughout it all, he never forgot those who came to his aid.

“I owe my life to those people who rushed me to the hospital,” the now 79-year-old said last week of the first responders who took care of him in that first critical hour. He suffered life-threatening injuries in what police referred to at the time as a freak accident.

On May 8, 2015, a couple of hundred sheets of wallboard fell on him during a visit to the Riverhead Building Supply yard on Cove Hollow Road in East Hampton, East Hampton Town police said at the time. In an interview last week, Mr. Lombardi, a builder for 25 years, recalled walking through the warehouse with one of the R.B.S. employees when he was directed up the steps to the second floor to inspect some new insulation materials. 

“I remember walking through and I remember the Sheetrock falling on me,” he said. He was trapped from the waistdown and was in and out of consciousness during the rescue effort that ensued. “If my head was under it, I would have been gone,” he said.

Under the direction of Gerard Turza Jr., then the second assistant chief of the East Hampton Fire Department and now the fire chief, the department’s heavy rescue squad worked meticulously to free him. “It took 25 people, one sheet at a time, to remove it,” Mr. Lombardi said. Each sheet weighed about 90 pounds. 

Everyone’s first instinct was to get the sheets off him as fast as possible, but they had to slow down; removing an estimated 20,000 pounds of material that is crushing a patient too quickly could actually be detrimental if the paramedic did not stabilize him first, the chief said. They had no idea at first what was going on under the sheets and had to be prepared for amputations and life-threatening bleeding. 

They also had to ensure their own safety. An adjacent shelf had toppled over too and there were still items teetering overhead. “Everything had to be coordinated,” Chief Turza said. “Everybody did what they are trained to do.”

The endeavor took about 20 minutes, and then the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association, led on scene by Nick Calace, a paid paramedic, transported him to a waiting medevac helicopter at East Hampton Airport, and he was rushed to Stony Brook University Hospital, the area’s only level-one trauma center. The ambulance crew, all volunteers, consisted of Barbara Hansen, Suzy Dayton, Olgar (QuiQue) Araya, and Ian Hoyt. 

“Those people got me there as soon as they most possibly could,” Mr. Lombardi said. “The people at Stony Brook told my family that had I not gotten there, if I had gotten there just a little bit later, they would not have been able to save my life.”

Mr. Lombardi was in the intensive care unit for several days. His left foot was crushed, his knees were severely damaged, his left femur bone was sticking out of his skin, and eight ribs were broken. “I was banged up pretty bad,” he said. 

For three days it was “touch and go,” he said. His blood pressure was dangerously low and he was placed in a medically induced coma. 

Michael Tousiani, a friend he had built a house for, arranged for his transfer to New York Presbyterian Hospital, where five different surgeons were put in charge of his care. His wife, Antonia, remained at his side throughout his 96-day hospital stay. There was always someone with him, he said. She took one day off a week to drive back to East Hampton and then his son or daughter would take over. 

When he was discharged, the surgeries continued — 36 in all. He spent many months convalescing at home in Springs under the care of a nurse. “I lost like three years of my life,” he said. 

Mr. Lombardi is thankful though. He does not place blame or complain about the injuries that he still suffers from. He said he was a customer of Riverhead Building Supply for many years. “They always treated me well. It wasn’t their fault. They were very supportive of me after the accident.”

In the days and weeks that followed the accident, the first responders heard different stories about his condition, but it was not until about a month and a half ago that they heard from him directly. Chief Turza was working his shift as 911 dispatcher in the Village of East Hampton’s Department of Emergency Communications, housed in the same building as the Fire Department, when Mr. Lombardi walked through the door looking to get in touch with those who had helped him. 

Rarely do those whom fire and emergency medical services have helped return to say thank you. Even more rare is someone turning up years later. “I shook his hand. He hugged me,” Chief Turza recalled. “He just wanted to thank us.” 

“I can probably count on one hand in the 26 and a half years I’ve been doing this that that’s happened.” The chief said it has been “humbling and exceptionally gratifying.” 

“It’s pretty awesome to see how well he is doing and that someone that had such a traumatic event came out doing so well,” Mr. Calace said, adding how nice it is to see that Mr. Lombardi has remained so positive and grateful.

Mr. Lombardi said he thought often throughout his recovery about the members of fire and emergency medical services who helped him. He wanted to wait until he was feeling well enough to express his appreciation and give them “a heroes’ dinner,” as he called it. 

“I was remiss in letting this go,” he said of the time that lapsed during his recovery. “I wanted to sit with them and be able to talk to them and be relaxed,” he said. 

And that’s just what they did over a meal two weeks ago. They spoke about what happened and they were eager to hear about the extent of his injuries and how he had recuperated, he said. “They all knew I was in very bad shape. They couldn’t believe anybody could recover from that.” 

Mr. Lombardi said he has 85 to 90 percent of his strength back. He still cannot walk very far. “I’m trying to build myself up as much as I can,” he said.

“He probably had the hardest job of all,” Chief Turza said. “He had the will to keep on surviving. He had to have the willpower to do this. He could have easily . . . given up. He didn’t.”

His family threw him an early 80th birthday party a week ago — he will reach the milestone in January.

Many people rallied around him from the moment the accident happened, he said. He spoke of the cooperation between the various emergency agencies that responded and the people at Riverhead Building Supply to safely and quickly free him, and the quality care he received, started at the accident site in East Hampton to the hospital, and even prayer groups that prayed for him.

“It gave me a taste of the real community we live in,” he said.