A firefighter pulled from the wreckage of a Woodmere house fire early Friday was critically injured, and officials couldn't immediately explain how he was discovered "by chance" in the basement after a first-floor collapse.
Joseph Sanford Jr., 43, was one of several Inwood firefighters who joined efforts to search the home in teams during the fire, according to Inwood Fire Chief Anthony Rivelli.
Rivelli and other fire officials said they didn't know how Sanford ended up alone in the debris-strewn basement.
"I didn't know he was missing until I heard the Maydays going out," the chief said.
Nassau Assistant Chief Fire Marshal Michael F. Uttaro said the Woodmere and Inwood departments are in charge of investigating the events leading up to Sanford's injuries.
"It is not clear if he fell through the floor or was in the basement and debris fell on him, trapping him," Uttaro said.
Worried Inwood firefighters gathered Friday afternoon at the department and North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, where Sanford was breathing with the help of a ventilator.
A Nassau fire marshal planned to stay at the hospital overnight to lend support to Sanford's family, Uttaro said.
The hospital did not provide details about the firefighter's injuries. Police said he was in critical but stable condition.
The fire is not deemed suspicious, but the cause is under investigation, police said.
Sanford is a 17-year department veteran and a former Inwood assistant fire chief, the department said. Officials said the husband and father works for the Nassau County Public Works Department.
Rivelli called Sanford "a very good, experienced, interior firefighter." Family members couldn't be reached for comment.
More than 200 volunteers from more than a dozen departments responded to the home on Central Avenue after neighbors reported the blaze shortly before 4 a.m., police and fire officials said.
The house had been recently renovated and the owners were at their Manhattan apartment at the time of the fire, said Woodmere Fire Chief Leonard Cherson. Two other firefighters suffered minor injuries but were not hospitalized.
Cherson said he arrived at the scene to find the brick home engulfed. The fire had started in the basement and spread "right to the roof," he said.
Rivelli said his department received a request for assistance at 4:08 a.m., and six volunteers including Sanford responded, along with two chiefs.
Cherson said firefighters from Woodmere, Lawrence-Cedarhurst, Hewlett and Inwood entered the home minutes later and discovered that a section of the first floor had collapsed.
At that point, the firefighters were told to evacuate, Cherson said. He couldn't say whether Sanford was in that group.
According to Cherson, Hewlett volunteers later entered the basement while operating a hose line in the rear and found him "by chance."
"As they went down the basement steps is when they found him," Cherson said. "Nobody knew he was missing."
Said Rivelli: "This was something that happened spontaneously . . . This was in the onset of the search and rescue."
The chief told reporters later in the day, "It's very strongly possible he could've been unaccounted for, for a short amount of time."
Volunteers from Lawrence-Cedarhurst may have also helped rescue Sanford, who went into cardiac arrest, Rivelli said.
Uttaro said Sanford was first transported to St. John's Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway, where Rivelli said he was revived by emergency room staff.