A 75-year-old man helped his family escape his burning Queens home early Monday - but died after running back into the house for his cell phone, witnesses and FDNY sources said.
Nathaniel Lagree was found lifeless in the basement of his smoky St. Albans home a short time after the fire ignited at 6:20 a.m., FDNY officials said.
Lagree helped pry open the front door of his Zoller Road home to free his wife, Betty, and daughter, Patricia, from the choking smoke, witnesses said.
But because the cordless home phone he carried out was not working, Lagree dashed back into the dangerous home to grab his mobile phone, witnesses and the sources said.
"He saved them," said Bryant Lattimer, a schoolteacher who lives next door. "I don't know why he went back - but when he did, he didn't come out."
Lattimer woke up when a coughing Patricia Lagree rang his doorbell in a panic to say that her father had not reemerged from the smoke-filled house.
"I went back and saw black smoke," said Lattimer, 27. "It was coming from all the windows. I tried to go back and save him (and) I heard a tapping at the home's back windows."
"But it wasn't him," he said. "It was just the heat."
Firefighters broke down the two-story home's rear door and tossed all of the furniture out of the basement in a desperate attempt to locate and save Lagree, but the doting father wasn't breathing when they discovered him.
Lagree, a retired Con Ed worker and Korean war veteran, was rushed to New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens where he died a short time later, officials said.
"He was a great guy and he was so nice," said Raymond Scretchen, 45, who is married to the dead man's niece. "He was so sweet."
Betty and Patricia Lagree were also taken to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation and minor burns, officials said. They are expected to recover.
The stubborn blaze - sparked by an electrical short in the basement ceiling - took firefighters nearly an hour to extinguish, FDNY officials said.
A FDNY spokesman urged people to stay out of burning buildings until firefighters have secured the dangerous structures.