David Bernstein was heartbroken to learn that Gregg Saunders, whom he had known since they were 4 years old, a man he called his best friend, was killed in a car accident.
Between tears and stories from their 50-year friendship, Bernstein said he finds it even more difficult to take in given the circumstances.
Saunders, who lived in Sagaponack, at about 11:40 a.m. The driver of the other car, Benjamin Rechler, 19, of Brookville, was distracted when he crossed into the opposite lane, striking Saunders' Prius, according to police. He's been cited with two traffic summons.
"I find it incredibly troublesome to wrap my head around this, that he died because of some kid adjusting his surfboard in the back of his car and to only get a summons from that ... it should be something like vehicular homicide," he said by phone from Florida on Friday afternoon.
The pair met in day camp, a few months before Saunders' family happened to move down the block from him in Roslyn. "We were like brothers ever since," he said. They went through high school together, went to college together for a time in Miami, and did some business deals together.
Saunders, a retail and shopping center developer, was a partner in Phillips International. He was 55 years old.
They hadn't spoken in a year, as they lived in different parts of the country, but Berstein said they'd lost touch before and then picked back up like no time had gone by.
Messages from friends on Facebook alerted him that Saunders had died. Bernstein said Saunders is survived by a wife.
He described Saunders as "a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy," even in board meetings earlier in his career, when he still had long hair. He was casual and funny, "definitely a character," Bernstein said. "He was one of kind."
East Hampton Town Planning Board chairman Bob Schaefer, who called Saunders a friend, also described him in much the same way — easygoing, bright, and jovial.
In fact, Saunders was on his way to meet Schaefer at restaurant in East Hampton Village when the accident occurred.
"By my calculation he was one minute away," Schaefer said on Friday, still coming to grips with the what happened. They last spoke at 11 a.m. on Thursday, when Saunders was driving through Southampton, and Schaefer expected him to arrive at about 11:30 a.m.
When he didn't show by noon, Schaefer figured Saunders had gotten stuck in the traffic snarl, when he heard the road was shut down due to an accident. He said he phoned Saunders' cellphone and left a message that he had an appointment in Montauk and they'd speak later.
By the time Schaefer had reached the Napeague Stretch, his cellphone rang several times. East Hampton Village police, seeing Schaefer's number was the last one on Saunders' phone, called for contact information for Saunders' family.
"It's unimaginable," Schaefer said.
Saunders "had focus on other places in Wainscott," where Schaefer also lives. They'd joke together — "You can put anything there except a Hooter's," Schaefer used to say, though he said it's far from true. "He appreciated that sort of humor."
Saunders was the type of business man who remained sensitive to his community, according to Rick Del Mastro, the co-chairman of the Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee.
After buying the former Plitt Ford property in Wainscott, he went to the CAC with his vision for the property. "At the end of the day, he went about it the right way," Del Mastro said.
With the help of Southampton architect Peter Cook, Saunders had plans for a 17,000-square-foot retail building for the property and had hopes of bringing in a gourment food market, like Whole Foods or Trader's Joes. .
"It’s a terrible loss. It really is," Del Mastro said. "I know I speak for the committee when I say our hearts go out to his family."