2012-06-06 / Front Page

Discarded cigarette ash caused fatal fire

Four perished as mulch ignited house
Eric Gross

The captain of the Putnam Fire Investigation Team, Dan Tompkins of Garrison, called it a "perfect storm." 

 Tompkins' comments came Thursday afternoon at Carmel Town Hall in Mahopac when police and fire officials revealed the cause of last month's horrific fire in Carmel that claimed the lives of four members of the Sullivan family.

Flames engulfed the two story residence on Wyndham Lane within minutes in the early morning hours of May 1. Firefighters found a ball of fire and watched helplessly as the home went up in flames.

Officials on the town, county and state level began an intensive investigation into the cause.

Carmel Police Chief Michael Johnson told a news conference that after an intentional fire had been ruled out, investigators centered their efforts on a mechanical malfunction. That too was discounted. Investigators next centered their efforts on an accidental cause, which proved to be correct.

"The cause of the fire," said Johnson, was "discarded cigarette ash that smoldered in garden mulch at the foot of the front porch adjacent to the stoop."

The embers smoldered for four hours. Tompkins said conditions had been extremely dry due to a lack of rainfall. Around 1 a.m. the wind picked up, which fanned the flames igniting the house's exterior and lattice work. Shingles melted and the fire spread. The result was Putnam's worst fire calamity in its history.

Thomas Sullivan, his wife Donna, and the couple's daughters, Meaghan and Mairead, perished.

The lone survivor, Thomas Sullivan Jr., 20, told authorities it was he who had been smoking earlier in the evening and the young man unintentionally flicked the cigarette butt into the mulch, which ignited hours later.

Johnson said Sullivan advised police that he was aroused by his father once the fire started but in a matter of minutes the home was fully engulfed and the elder Sullivan perished trying to rescue his wife, daughters and family Yorkshire terriers.

No criminal charges were being filed in connection with the incident, said police.

The magnitude of the horror attracted news crews from throughout the region for the press briefing with reporters from every television and major radio station in New York City, Westchester, Dutchess, western Fairfield and northern New Jersey in attendance.

News crews from the Associated Press, United Press International and Reuters were also on hand.

 

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