Home Safety Retired Air Force pilot and schoolteacher killed in house fire after 47...

Retired Air Force pilot and schoolteacher killed in house fire after 47 years of marriage


Peter Dujardin

Daily Press

He was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew B-52s during his time with the military.

She was a retired elementary school teacher, winning accolades for her instruction.

Russell E. Sypolt Jr., 70, and Shirley R. Sypolt, 68, died June 7 when an intense fire swept through their two-story home on a quiet cul-de-sac in the Michaels Woods subdivision in Hampton.

The Sypolts, who were married for 47 years, lived among close-knit neighbors — retired military and shipyard workers — who moved to the neighborhood in 1992.

“Just very sweet people,” neighbor Mary Green, 65, said of the Sypolts. “If you needed something, they were there. They are definitely going to be missed.”

Green recalled how years ago she got into a car accident and was laid up at a Hampton hospital. Shirley Sypolt came by several times to keep her company, taking care of her hair in the process.

Shirley Sypolt worked for decades at Cooper Elementary School before retiring in 2018. She specialized in science, taught 2nd and 5th grades, and was once recognized as the school’s teacher of the year.

“Thank you for being such an amazing teacher to my daughter!” a woman wrote on Shirley’s obituary page.

Russell Sypolt served in the Air Force from 1975 to 1996, with a specialty flying B-52 bombers. His last duty station was Langley Air Force Base, where he was chief of the bomber requirements branch, the Air Force said. He held other Department of Defense jobs after retiring, neighbors said.

Neighbor Jeffrey Dabney, 61, who works at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and typically gets up before dawn, called 911 to report the fatal fire.

At about 3:30 a.m. that morning, he was standing at his kitchen sink, which has a window facing the Sypolts’ backyard. When Dabney flipped on his garbage disposal, he said he spotted a flicker of light out of the corner of his eye.

“I looked up, and the fire was in the corner of the house in the back,” he said. “I dropped everything and ran outside.”

He tried to get to the Sypolts’ door, to no avail. “There was so much smoke and fire coming out,” he said. “There’s no way you could knock on that door, that’s how bad it was.”

Dabney called 911 and began banging on neighbors’ doors, having to do so repeatedly because “everyone in this cul-de-sac was still asleep.”

The fire scorched some trees, and began to melt a neighbor’s siding and one of Dabney’s toolboxes. “You could stand in the middle of the cul-de-sac and feel the heat,” he said.

He called 911 again to make sure firefighters were on the way. He estimated it took “every bit of 15 minutes” from his first 911 call to the first firetruck’s arrival.

The Hampton Division of Fire and Rescue says the blaze does not appear to be suspicious. But its origin is likely be ruled “undetermined” because the home’s heavy damage makes it nearly impossible to tell what caused it, said Battalion Chief and Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Anthony Chittum.

“The fire was so hot and intense” that most of the home was gone, he said.

Chittum declined to say where the Sypolts were found inside the burned out wreckage.

He said firefighters could not determine whether the home had smoke detectors, and he said it’s difficult to estimate how long the fire was burning before the neighbor spotted it.

Chittum said the blaze began on the first floor and that investigators have ruled out the gas system as a source of the blaze. But he said many other triggers — from an electrical issue to equipment malfunction to a human accident — can’t be ruled out.

“There’s so many things that we can’t 100% say,” Chittum said. “This is not unusual. It happens for fires all over the world and all over the country.”

An obituary from the family said the couple met in college and were married in 1974.

“After 47 years of marriage they were still very much in love, evident by the way they still glanced at each other from across a room and how they were still playful and lighthearted in each other’s presence,” the obituary said.

The couple had three sons: Russell E. Sypolt III, who died in 2018 at age 41, as well as Jason and Ryan, both of whom still live locally. The family declined to comment for this story.

Neighbors said the couple enjoyed being outside, working on their yard and hanging out with their Shetland Sheepdogs. They once won the “Yard of the Month” for Michaels Woods.

Though grass could be a struggle because of the shade, “they had a beautiful yard, with flowers and everything,” neighbor Kevin Green said. They planted 15 Crepe Myrtle trees out front.

They were “super outdoorsy people” and always willing to give advice on issues with the greenery, said Mike Lawson, a retired Air Force officer who moved to Michaels Woods with his family in 1992.

“You couldn’t ask for better neighbors and friends,” Lawson said. “They were always cordial and friendly and always looking to help you in any way they could.”

Dabney, who lived next door to the Sypolts for 30 years, said Shirley Sypolt was his daughter’s 5th grade teacher at Cooper Elementary “and she loved her.” And Russell Sypolt would often remind Dabney’s grandson to wear a helmet as the boy raced up and down the street on his bike.

“He’d say, Tristan, where’s your bike helmet at?” Dabney said. “So my grandson would go back and get it.”

Lawson said his two sons we’re friends and schoolmates with the Sypolts’ three sons growing up.

While the fire was underway June 7, Lawson called one of his sons in California to tell him to get in touch with the Sypolt sons. Lawson’s son managed to reach Jason Sypolt, who got to his parents’ Hampton home in 30 minutes.

Neighbors said the couple’s dog, a Sheltie, was found unhurt in the backyard after the fire, adding that it wasn’t out of the ordinary for the canine to be outside overnight. Firefighters gave the dog to Hampton Animal Control, with a plan to give it to the family.

A visitation will be held from noon to 1 p.m. on Sunday at Parklawn-Wood Funeral Home, 2551 N. Armistead Ave. in Hampton. A celebration of life will be held there at 1 p.m., followed by military honors at the Parklawn-Wood Memorial Park cemetery.

Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, pdujardin@dailypress.com

©2022 Daily Press. Visit dailypress.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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