By Jonathan Phelps
---- — HAMILTON — Mandy Carter-Zegarowski came home last night to the aftermath of a three-alarm fire that sparked as she was in California cheering on her son Michael Carter-Williams, a sophomore Syracuse University point guard who was playing in Saturday’s NCAA March Madness tournament.
While Carter-Williams knew something was wrong during the game by the look on his mother’s face in the crowd, the team was able to pull off a 66-60 victory against the University of California and advance to the Sweet 16.
Five people, including Carter-Williams’ stepfather, Zach Zegarowski, and two brothers, were inside the home at 261 Cutler Road watching the game on TV when the fire broke out in the chimney and spread. There were no injuries.
About two minutes into the game, smoke started pouring into the room, but they thought it was just smoke from a log in the fire, Zegarowski said last night.
“We had a fire going (in the fireplace), and it got behind the walls,” he said. “It went from bad to worse.”
Carter-Zegarowski and her daughter, who were watching the game from the HP Pavilion at San Jose, found out about the fire during halftime. Carter-Williams knew something was up because he could see his mother and sister upset on the sidelines, she said.
“He started asking what was wrong and was mouthing to us ‘what is wrong,’ so I went to the lounge area and kept waving that everything is OK, but he knew,” Carter-Zegarowski said.
An assistant for the team ended up telling him a “white lie,” and the news about the fire was told to him after the game.
Deputy Chief Kirby Brand said the fire was called in around 10:15 p.m. Saturday. Eight crews from surrounding towns helped at the scene, while two provided station coverage.
The fire quickly spread from the chimney up the walls of the home to the attic, he said.
“There was heavy smoke on arrival,” he said. “It definitely got a head start. Our crews tried to make it to the attic, but they were driven back by the heat and smoke. We had to evacuate an interior attack twice.”
Brand said there was severe damage to the third floor and heavy smoke damage to the first and second floor. “In my 35 years, this is one of the most stubborn fires I’ve seen,” he said.
It took several hours for the blaze to be completely extinguished, he said.
Carter-Zegarowski arrived home from California around 6:39 last night and went inside the home with her husband. She had been hearing from friends and family for many hours about the damage before she returned, she said.
“The first thing I thought of was my kids were in the house, and they got out,” she said. “I am thankful no one was hurt.”
The family was able to salvage several prized possessions and carried them out to vehicles last night.
“We built this house, and my kids were raised in this house, and all of their pictures and stuff that you want to hold onto is gone,” she said.
Zegarowski said he waited until halftime to call his wife, not wanting to shock her. But he did want to share the news as soon as possible in case word got out.
Zegarowski appeared to remain positive as he spoke with the media in front of his home last night.
He called his stepson an underdog in his basketball pursuits.
“He has always been a fighter, and so are we,” Zegarowski said. “We can rebuild a house, you can’t rebuild a life.”
He said it was tough having family in California when the fire broke but said Carter-Williams is doing OK.
“Thanks for the prayers everyone all thats important to me is my family is okay,” the basketball star wrote on Twitter.
Carter-Williams, who played for Hamilton-Wenham High School for one season before transferring to St. Andrew’s School in Rhode Island, scored 12 points as the starting point guard.
Zegarowski said the community support has been “incredible,” with many reaching out to them with clothing, food and gift cards.
Last night, a large, blue tarp covered the roof of the home as crews worked on sealing up large, burnt-out holes in the roof.
Carter-Zegarowski said she was able to enjoy some of the celebration of Syracuse’s victory.
“At least they won,” she said. “If they didn’t, that would have been a double whammy.”
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.