CARMEL, N.Y. – The brother-in-law of a suburban New York police captain says the officer died a hero in a horrific house fire that also claimed the lives of his wife and two daughters.
Thomas Zielinski tells the Journal News he spoke to the surviving son, who says his dad, Thomas Sullivan, got him out and then ran back inside to try to rescue the rest of his family. They all succumbed to the blaze.
The four died during the early morning fire at their Carmel home in Putnam County, about 60 miles north of New York City.
The blaze was so intense that it melted the siding of two nearby homes and prevented firefighters from entering, said Johnson. It took firefighters from several towns three hours to extinguish the flames. Video of the fire, posted on the website of the Journal News, showed the home being nearly entirely consumed by a fireball.
The fire also melted plastic and paint on cars at the home.
Officials were able to find Sullivan's body on the rear deck, where Johnson said he apparently landed after jumping from the second floor. Two other bodies have been recovered but not identified, and the fourth has possibly been located by a cadaver-sniffing dog.
"They were pretty well burned," Johnson said. "It's very difficult to identify them without an autopsy and DNA."
The other victims are believed to be Sullivan's wife, Donna, and his two teenage daughters, 18-year-old Meaghan and 13-year-old Mairead. His son, 20-year-old Thomas Sullivan Jr., escaped by crawling down the stairs and out of the garage after being woken up by his father, Johnson said.
"He was screaming that there was fire in the house," he said.
The fire, reported by a neighbor just before 2 a.m., left little behind of the family's home on a quiet street in Carmel, Putnam County, about 60 miles north of New York City.
Johnson said no 911 calls came from inside the house, which he said was equipped with multiple wired smoke detectors. None sent any alarm to a monitoring station.
Sullivan was a former New York police officer assigned to the Bronx who had left the city for the comparatively tranquil suburbs two decades ago because he felt he could make a bigger difference in a smaller community.
"We are devastated, the village of Larchmont as a whole," said Larchmont Police Chief John Poleway, who said Sullivan was "full of integrity, honesty, he was dedicated to family."
Sullivan's daughters were students at Carmel High School. Mairead was a freshman and Meaghan a senior.
"The school community is devastated," said the district's superintendent, James Ryan. "We are working together in this very difficult time to offer support to students and staff."
Principal Kevin Carroll said the girls "were good students and nice kids."
"Obviously today their teachers were very upset, and of course the other students," he said, adding that school psychologists were following the girls' class schedules to see the children who would be most upset.
He said that many of the students knew of the fire by the time they got to school, and that administrators made an official announcement at 7:10 a.m.
"It was very quiet for the most part," Carroll said of the school's atmosphere. "There was something in the air."