HICKSVILLE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- A Long Island priest was being credited with saving the life of one of his parishioners on Thursday after an elderly man accidently set himself on fire near the altar.
"When I got into the church the gentleman was on fire back towards the chapel area. I grabbed the fire extinguisher, put him out and tried to keep him calm until paramedics and fire department arrived," Father Henry Reid told CBS 2's Jennifer McLogan.
1010 WINS' Mona Rivera speaks with the priests who saved the man
A church regular, 89-year-old Vito Badalamente is now fighting for his life, after catching fire near the altar of Holy Family Catholic Church early Thursday morning. Nassau County Police Detective Sgt. James Skopek said his clothes caught fire while lighting candles in the back of the church.
"The fire alarm was activated from within the church," Skopak told WCBS 880 reporter Sophia Hall.
WCBS 880's Sophia Hall reports from Hicksville
The emotional priest and pastor offered grim details of a human tragedy that has overwhelmed their Hicksville parish.
"We are not sure how, but his clothing seemed to have caught fire while he was lighting a votive candle by the blessed mother statue," Pastor Gerard Gentleman said told McLogan.
The senior citizen had collapsed near the sacristy with his clothes ablaze as Father Reid sprang into action.
"He was awake and aware. He was not communicative, just groaning. It was a little scary," Father Reid said.
Badalamente was rushed to the burn unit at Nassau University Medical Center in critical condition. His stricken family was his side. Sixty percent of his body was scorched by the flames.
"Without the priest's quick action the 89-year-old would have succumbed to those burns, absolutely," Detective Sgt. Skopek told McLogan.
"Our whole parish community is certainly affected by something so sad and so tragic to happen inside the church," Pastor Gentleman added.
The victim's neighbors were stunned.
"We will pray for him for a speedy recovery. It is very sad," Elaine Ianazzi said.
"To the priests of the parish, thank you for being around and helping out this man," Noreen Cullagh added.
Some are calling Father Reid a savior. He said helping his parishioners is the privilege of being a priest.
Police are investigating whether the 89-year-old victim may have fallen into the candles or if his sleeve caught fire while lighting them. He was alone in the church when the accident happened.
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