Outside the burning home, a man lay in the street, writhing with severe burns all over his body.
Inside, a mother's three young children were still trapped, she screamed to police officers.
Her pleas sent the team of Suffolk County police officers bursting into the burning house Sunday morning. They said they fought their way through thick smoke in the Wyandanch home to rescue the children, ages 7, 2 and 6 months.
"You hear that there's children inside, and I guess your instincts kick in and you run inside and do what needs to be done," said Officer Joseph Scariolo, recalling the rescue effort Sunday.
Two children were in the living room. One was in a crib in another room. All three were screaming and crying, said Officer Justo Rivera.
"They were all just very petrified, very scared," Rivera said.
With smoke everywhere, the officers had trouble seeing.
Said Scariolo: "I couldn't see any faces. It was pretty dark inside. The smoke was definitely very heavy."
Arson Squad detectives are trying to determine the cause of the fire at State Avenue, police said.
The officers weren't injured, but the unidentified 21-year-old burn victim was flown to Stony Brook University Medical Center, where he was listed in critical condition Sunday afternoon.
The children were taken to Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip with their mother, identified as Antoinette Bristel, 24. The children weren't injured but were taken to the hospital as a precaution.
A First Precinct supervisor, Sgt. Frank Giuliano, said that had his officers not raced inside, the outcome could have been dire. "It's a good possibility that we would have had three dead children inside that house," Giuliano said. "You know, the smoke was very intense inside the house."