Shirley family died of smoke inhalation in fire, says mom's sister

The front of the home on Hollywood Drive

The front of the home on Hollywood Drive in Shirley where a fatal fire broke out. (Oct. 14, 2013) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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Smoke inhalation caused the deaths of a woman and her three young children in a Shirley house fire last week, a family member said Monday.

Michelle McCusker, sister of the children's mother, said Monday that the Suffolk County medical examiner's office informed the family Sunday of the cause of death. She said fire investigators told family members they have not yet determined how the fire started.

"They said it appears accidental and it just went too quick." McCusker, of Jackson, N.J., said, "I don't believe they determined an exact cause. The fire did too much damage."

Killed in the fast-moving blaze were Jennifer McCusker, 41, who had grown up in the home, and her three children: Aidan Tarbell, 7, a second-grader, and twins Ava Jane and Brendan Mistretta, 2.

On Monday, a cross was erected in front of the Hollywood Drive home where the fire took place, joining a makeshift memorial.

The house was equipped with smoke detectors, but it's unclear whether they were working at the time of the blaze, two family members said.

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Suffolk police, the lead investigators, declined to comment Monday. Officials from the medical examiner's office and both the Brookhaven Town and Suffolk County fire marshal's offices could not be reached. A Brookhaven Town spokesman said officials had no updates.

Michelle McCusker said Monday fire officials told the family that Aidan was found in his bedroom, hugging his dog -- named Mud Foot -- a mutt the family adopted from a shelter about three years ago, who also perished in the blaze. Jennifer McCusker had raced to the twins' bedroom -- the same room she had shared with her sister growing up -- and was holding one of the toddlers when she was overcome, fire officials have said.

Michelle McCusker and her brother James McCusker, who owns the home, toured the charred structure Sunday accompanied by a Brookhaven Town official for about an hour, hoping to salvage family belongings. They recovered photos and some personal documents, but most of the children's toys and clothing were destroyed, she said.

Spotted in the wreckage, said Michelle McCusker, was a smoke detector. "I saw it hanging off the attic pull-down," she said. "It was there, but it was melted. But it was there."

Joseph Tarbell, Aidan's father, said Monday that he had lived in the house's basement for a few weeks because he was in the process of moving. He recalled the house having smoke detectors, but said he was "not sure if they were working."

"My world was just ripped apart," he said.

Of his son, Joseph Tarbell said: "He was the greatest son in the world. He had an infectious personality. He loved everybody."

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