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NY police captain dies trying to rescue wife, daughters from fire, in-law says

Louis Lanzano / AP

Two vehicles, one badly burnt out is removed from the scene of the house fire on Tuesday, in Carmel, N.Y. A police captain, his wife and two teenage daughters died in a fire that swept through their home early Tuesday.

CARMEL, N.Y. — A suburban New York police captain helped save his son from a horrific house fire, then ran back inside to try to rescue his wife and two teenage daughters -- and died with them in the blaze, according to his brother-in-law.

“Tommy Sullivan was a hero,” Thomas Zielinski told The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., after speaking to the surviving son. “After he got his son out, he ran back in to get the rest of the family.”

The 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 early Tuesday morning. He pulled the garage door open with a rope because the electricity was out. He told arriving police officers that his family was trapped inside their Carmel home, about 60 miles north of New York City.

“He was screaming that there was fire in the house,” Carmel Police Chief Michael Johnson said.

Read NBCNewYork.com's complete coverage of fatal fire

The other victims are believed to be Sullivan’s wife, Donna, and his daughters, 18-year-old Meaghan and 13-year-old Mairead.

“They were pretty well burned. It’s very difficult to identify them without an autopsy and DNA,” said Johnson.

Louis Lanzano / AP

The completely destroyed home is partially visible on Wyndham Lane on Tuesday in Carmel, N.Y.

The son was treated for smoke inhalation at a hospital and released, said Vickie Zielinski, Donna Sullivan’s sister-in-law.

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.

"There's nothing standing but two garage doors," said Lorraine Girolamo, who lives two doors down. She said she didn't know the Sullivans well but saw them daily and would wave hello. She said they moved in about 11 years ago when the residential development opened.

Officials were still looking for a cause into blaze.

“Everything’s being explored ... whether it was suspicious or not is still being investigated,” Johnson said.

Officials were able to find Sullivan’s body on the rear deck, where Johnson said he apparently landed after jumping from the second floor.

Sullivan was captain of the Larchmont Police Department.

The fire was reported by a neighbor just before 2 a.m. 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 described Sullivan as “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.”

A funeral was planned for Saturday morning at St. James the Apostle Church in Carmel. Viewing will be at the Balsamo-Cordovano Funeral Home in Carmel; hours have not yet been scheduled.

NBCNewYork.com and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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