A widow’s story of love, loss following Greenport fire

03/13/2014 12:05 PM |

Officials with the Suffolk County Arson Squad start their investigation of last Wednesday night’s fatal house fire in Greenport. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Jack Pollack didn’t have an easy life.

He was knocked into a coma and disabled as a young man and later fought through numerous surgeries for a heart condition and cancer. He was blind in one eye and could barely see out of the other.

He hadn’t been able to walk since having surgery in 2009 and needed a wheelchair to get around, even inside his home on First Street in Greenport, where he was killed in a fire last Wednesday night. He was 61. 

Despite decades of struggle, Mr. Pollack lived each day to the fullest, said his widow, Karen.

“He could face adversity with a smile,” Ms. Pollack said. “He never complained. In spite of it all, he didn’t have a bitter bone in his body. So many of us lose a job, wreck a car, have a divorce and hate the world. Not Jack.”

Ms. Pollack sat in her mother’s house in Southold and sipped coffee, recalling the good times the couple shared before a fire swept through their home and stole away her house, her dog and her husband of 15 years.

“In spite of the hardship and difficulties, he and I were always laughing,” she said. “We laughed and laughed. We’d look at each other and crack up, just because life was so good.”

Mr. Pollack was born in Redondo Beach, Calif., and grew up with a love for music and surfing. But he became disabled in 1974 after being beaten in a “violent” assault, Ms. Pollack said.

Just 21 at the time, he suffered brain damage and fell into a coma. Doctors feared he wouldn’t survive. His mother was told to make funeral arrangements and he even received last rites, Ms. Pollack said.

He beat those odds and woke up, but couldn’t speak. Again, his doctors were convinced that he would spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state.

“He fooled everyone because he’s no quitter,” Ms. Pollack said. “His body was broken, but his mind and his heart were intact.” He still suffered from seizures and had become weak on his left side. His vision was also practically gone.

Years after the attack, she said, he walked in on a robbery in progress at a convenience store in Redondo Beach. He stepped in, threatening the two burglars with his cane. The man who couldn’t see and could barely walk scared the two men away, she said.

“That’s who he was,” she said.

When the two met decades later, Ms. Pollack instantly fell in love.

“We clicked like he’s the one,” she said. “You can’t help who you’re going to fall in love with … I knew I was going to be in for a hard life, but I loved him, you know?”

The two worked through his medical problems and married in 1998. His seizures stopped that year, she said. They moved to Greenport in 2000 and began a life together.

They couldn’t get out much because of his disability; instead of going out to eat, Ms. Pollack would cook lobster dinners on special occasions.

The Pollacks shared Jack’s love of music, from Jimi Hendricks and Janis Joplin to Bruce Springsteen and The Doors. Singing was how the couple relieved their stress.

“He sang, even though he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket,” she joked. “But it was a joyful noise.”

Last year, Mr. Pollack was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent nine months of chemotherapy and was responding well, she recalled.

“He was my hero and my inspiration,” Ms. Pollack said quietly. “When there’s love it’s not a burden to care for someone else. I was the lucky one, because he enriched my life every day with his spirit and his strength.”

Last Wednesday, Karen and Jack were sitting in the living room, watching the news. At 6:30 p.m., the national news came on and the nightly tradition began: Jack watched the television and turned up the volume so his wife could hear the stories while she prepared dinner for the two of them and their pets.

At about 6:45 p.m., Ms. Pollack went to the basement to find a screwdriver. A few minutes later, she can back upstairs and opened the basement door. She ran into blackness.

“I came up the stairs and my whole life had changed,” she said.

At first she thought the power had gone out. Then a furious blast of heat knocked her back. She waded through the thick, choking smoke back to the living room.

“The house was a cataclysm,” she said. “I never could have imagined anything like that.”

She reached the room where she had left Mr. Pollack, but a wall of flames shot up, blocking her path and sucking the air from her lungs.

“I knew I was overmatched,” she later recalled. “I knew I couldn’t get to him.”

She remembered stumbling to the rear door of her house, trying to escape. The couple’s 4-year-old dog — a mixed-breed shelter dog named Zoomie — died at her feet from the smoke.

“It happened so fast,” she whispered. “So fast.”

She rushed outside and screamed so loud for help that her throat was sore for days.

Next door, Eric Berninger had been ready to jump into the shower 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 the. Pollacks’ house engulfed in smoke and flames.

“Holy s—, the house is on fire!” his father yelled. The two rushed outside.

“She was in the front yard, yelling, ‘He’s still in the house!’ ” Mr. Berninger said the day after the fire.

He and his father ran around to the back and saw the couple’s 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 and was hospitalized for evaluation, fire officials said. He was released that night, police said. Fifteen minutes after the fire had started, the blaze was under control, Mr. Kalin said.

Firefighters found Mr. Pollack’s body in the living room of the house soon after, fire officials said.

Southold Town police, the Suffolk County Arson Squad, Suffolk County crime investigators and the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office investigated the fire, authorities said.

The cause of the fire hasn’t been determined yet, though police said it doesn’t appear to be suspicious at this time.

Ms. Pollack’s memory is blurry from the moment she ran outside her burning home. She remembers being taken to the hospital, where an X-ray revealed smoke damage in her lungs. She remembers thinking that someone had to get inside to save her husband.

But now, a week after the blaze, she realizes that she had already known her husband had been killed.

“I knew I witnessed my husband die,” she said. “Nobody could survive that inferno.”

Ms. Pollack said that, at first, she wished she had been with him in the fire.

“All I could think was that I should be dead,” she admitted. “I should have died in the fire. I wished I had. But that’s not right. He would never, never have wanted me to perish with him.”

Her neighbors and friends have helped her through the pain. Some Greenporters banded together to try to find her cat, Silvio, who went missing in the flames.

On Wednesday morning, the gray cat paced around Ms. Pollack’s mother’s home, where the two of them have been living since the fire; he had been found days later in a shed, hiding and traumatized but alive.

Ms. Pollack also lost her music collection in the fire. She went to the Greenport library this week to start checking out CDs again, but knew she had to pay for an overdue book that was burned in the fire.

When she explained that she needed to replace a book, the librarian stopped her: the library had heard what had happened just up the road and cleared her fine before she walked in the door. Ms. Pollack broke down and wept at the counter.

“It’s such an outpouring of kindness,” she said.

But most of all, it’s the lessons her husband taught her about facing adversity and loving each day as a blessing that keep Ms. Pollack going.

“Jack wouldn’t want me giving up,” she said, “because he never gave up.”

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