An 81-year-old widower died in a fire at his Locust Valley home Friday afternoon, a week after returning from a rehabilitation center following a ministroke, family and neighbors said.
The victim was identified as Peter Zukas by his brother-in-law, Mario Moccia of Locust Valley. Nassau County police later confirmed his death and said he served as a member of the force for 27 years, retiring in 1991.
Moccia said he and a neighbor tried to save Zukas by dousing the flames with a garden hose but they were unsuccessful.
The Second Avenue blaze started in the back of the house about 1:30 p.m. and spread to the eaves and attic, said Locust Valley Fire Chief Brian Nolan, who led three departments at the scene. The fire was put out in about 20 minutes, he said, and most of the house was undamaged.
The cause is being investigated but it is not deemed suspicious, said James Hickman, head of the investigations division at the Nassau County fire marshal's office.
"It was a quick, freak, unfortunate fire," he said.
Moccia said the fire started shortly after he and Zukas returned to Zukas' home after going out for lunch.
Moccia told Zukas he was going to run an errand and return soon. He said he was about to leave when Zukas lit a cigar while sitting on the back patio.
"I told him, 'You shouldn't be smoking,' " Moccia recalled.
Zukas liked relaxing with a cigar but hadn't smoked one in a long time because of his health problems, Moccia said.
Less than 40 minutes later, as Moccia was returning, he saw the smoke from the fire.
Moccia said he and a neighbor ran to grab a hose, but the water pressure was low.
"We found a faucet closer to the front of the house, but the hose wasn't long enough," he said. "We couldn't do anything for him."
Zukas was active in the Locust Valley Seniors Club, which met every other Tuesday at the local library, said club president Alfred Campisi, who lives a few houses from Zukas.
"He was a nice guy," Campisi said. "He used to be a policeman and worked 20 years for the police force."