NYPD officer Joseph Pritchard, 30, was killed while off-duty in...

NYPD officer Joseph Pritchard, 30, was killed while off-duty in a crash on the Long Island Expressway. (March 25, 2013) Credit: NYPD; James Carbone

A New York City policeman from North Babylon was killed Monday when his pickup truck was struck from behind by a box truck on the Long Island Expressway, a crash that set both vehicles on fire, Suffolk police said.

Joseph Pritchard, 30, was pronounced dead at the scene, between westbound exits 51 and 52 in Dix Hills.

Suffolk police said his 2008 Dodge truck was stopped in the right lane "for an unknown reason" about 2:20 a.m. when it was hit by a truck owned by Barakat Trucking in New Jersey.

The truck driver, Eduardo Garcia, 34, of the Bronx, got out on his own, police said. Three motorists tried to get Pritchard out, but the fire was too strong, police said.

Garcia was taken to Huntington Hospital for non-life-threatening injuries, police said. Barakat officials could not be reached for comment.

Detectives were trying to pinpoint why Pritchard's pickup had stopped but did not believe Garcia was at fault, said Det. Lt. William Burke of the Second Precinct. The westbound LIE was shut until just after 9 a.m.

Pritchard joined the NYPD in 2005 and patrolled midtown Manhattan. Monday, his stationhouse flag flew at half-staff.

He lived with his dog in North Babylon, where neighbors got to know him through annual block parties.

"He was just the nice guy on the block," said neighbor Kathy Vitzhum, 48, who said detectives arrived at the house Monday morning and broke the news to her. "It just made me, my friends, my family, so comfortable to know he would be here if we needed him. He's going to be missed as a friend, as a neighbor."

"My kids loved him," Vitzhum said. "He came from a really good family."

Pritchard loved being an NYPD officer, and the job's bonus was playing on the NYPD's football team, said Richard Biancaniello, who was his coach at Lindenhurst High School.

Pritchard earned all-Suffolk County honors and all-Division I honors in 2000, playing defensive end and running back.

"He was one of my favorite players of all time," the coach said. "He was one of the toughest kids I ever coached."

One time, Pritchard broke his arm during a game, Biancaniello recalled, and tried to cheer up his coach by putting his arm around him, saying, "Don't worry, coach. I'm playing next week." The cast on his arm made that impossible, however.

Pritchard's parents supported him and the football team by raising money for players as part of the school's Touchdown Club, Biancaniello said.

A buddy from childhood, Erik Conroy, said Pritchard's leadership was obvious in high school. He was always upbeat and had been voted the "Best Smile" in the yearbook by his class.

"People wanted to be around him because of the way he was," said Conroy, his voice breaking as he talked about the "brother" he met decades ago playing youth football.

Pritchard continued playing football at St. John's University and later at SUNY Cortland, his friend said, but his heart was in the police force.

"He was a die-hard cop," said Conroy, who plans to fly from his California home for the funeral. "He looked out for us. He always did the right thing. He wanted to be there for other people. He knew when and where and how to use his niceness and toughness."

Family members declined to comment.

Detectives plan to look at LIE traffic cameras for footage of the accident, police said. They want to find out how long Pritchard's pickup was stopped in the right lane before the crash and also why the box truck driver did not see it.

Both vehicles were impounded for safety checks, and police asked anyone with information to call the Second Squad at 631-854-8252 or Crime Stoppers at 800-220-TIPS (8477).

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