Eric Berninger and his father weren’t prepared for what they saw when they burst out of their house on 1st Street Wednesday night.
Mr. Berninger had been ready to jump into the shower about 6:45 p.m. when he thought he heard cries for help coming from outside. He figured he might just be hearing things, but called down to his father to check.
His father peeked outside to find his neighbor’s house engulfed in smoke and flames.
“Holy s—, the house is on fire!” his father yelled.
Standing near the burnt remains of his neighbor’s living room the morning after the blaze claimed the life of 61-year-old Jack Pollack, Mr. Berninger recalled calling 911 and rushing outside.
They found their neighbor — 58-year-old Karen Pollack — screaming that her handicapped husband was trapped inside.
“She was in the front yard, yelling, ‘He’s still in the house!’ ” Mr. Berninger said. He and his father ran around to the back of the house, and saw the Pollack’s pet dog inside the burning house.
“We opened up the door and the smoke was just so thick … you couldn’t see anything,” he said. “I’ve never been in their house. I didn’t know where I’m going [in there].” But the fire raged out of control.
“The fire, it just started busting all the windows out,” Mr. Berninger said. “It started getting big really quick.”
Due to the size of the flames and overwhelming smoke, he and his father were forced back.
Another passerby, 41-year-old Wade Hackett of Greenport, saw the fire break out and tried to kick in the door, Mr. Berninger said. Mr. Hackett suffered minor injuries while trying to help, and took himself to the hospital for treatment, Southold Town police said.
Across the street, neighbor Jada Rowland was in the art studio in the back of her home.
“I kept hearing banging,” she said. “I don’t know whether they were banging on the doors [of the neighbors] or if it was the doors of the fire truck … Then I saw the lights from the fire trucks.”
Ms. Rowland stepped outside into a street filled with smoke.
“The smoke was so thick, like London fog,” she said. “There was so much smoke you couldn’t see. I thought my house was on fire.”
Greenport firefighters had been gathered at headquarters for a Hazmat training session that night, said Greenport Fire Department secretary and information officer Jim Kalin.
The entire department was called to the scene, with Southold and East Marion Fire Departments assisting.
Greeport firefighter Lt. Jeff Weingart suffered minor injuries while fighting the fire, and was hospitalized at ELIH for evaluation, fire officials said. He was released Wednesday night, police said.
The fire was under control just after 7 p.m., Mr. Kalin said. Mr. Pollack’s body was found in the living room of the house soon after, fire officials said.
The victim’s body remained inside the home as Southold Town police, the Suffolk County Arson Squad, Suffolk County crime investigators and the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office investigated, authorities said.
Ms. Pollack wasn’t burned in the fire, but suffered minor injuries and was treated and released, according to a police statement.
The cause of the fire has not yet been released, though police said it doesn’t appear to be suspicious at this time.
Ms. Rowland said she didn’t know the couple well, but said she had known Mr. Pollack had been physically handicapped since she first moved to the neighborhood 14 years ago.
Outside the home Thursday morning, Greenport village building department employees wrapped caution tape around the building to make sure others didn’t go inside the dangerous site.
Eileen Wingate, a code enforcement officer for the village, shook her head.
“This was my favorite little house,” she said. “It’s sad — sad.”