(This is the second fire at this complex since 2000 – while the project was under construction.)
EDGEWATER, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Maintenance workers fixing a leak and using a torch is what started the massive fire at an Edgewater, N.J., apartment complex fire, officials said Thursday night.
As 1010 WINS’ Carol D’Auria reported, Edgewater police Chief William Skidmore said at a news conference the workers were using a blow-torch to make repairs to a leak at the Avalon at Edgewater complex, when a plumber accidentally ignited the fire in a wall.
Skidmore said the workers tried to put it out themselves and delayed calling for help for about 15 minutes. It is unclear how many workers were involved or where exactly the work was being done.
“They tried to suppress it themselves, and then they called their supervisor, which gave the fire a head start,” Skidmore said.
Fire Chief Thomas Jacobson said the delay in calling 911 put his crews at a disadvantage, WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell reported.
“It takes four minutes for a room to be fully engulfed and flash over so 15 minutes can make a big difference,” Jacobson said.
Officials also said Thursday a lightweight wood construction contributed to the fire, leaving hundreds of residents permanently displaced.
Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland said a local state of emergency remains in effect due to the fire at The Avalon at Edgewater, which broke out around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday and raged for hours.
“It was a long and challenging night and I think every one of our first responders really stepped up to the challenge,” McPartland said.
McPartland said it was because of the good work of all the first responders that no lives were lost.
“I mean, I saw four brave men go into that fire and pull a woman out while the façade was coming down virtually on top of them,” he said.
The fire was brought under control by Thursday morning, but crews were still putting out hot spots and heavy smoke could be seen billowing from the structure even in the evening.
Jacobson said the fire appears to have started on the first floor and quickly spread through the floors and walls because of the building’s lightweight wood construction.
“If it was made out of concrete and cinder block, we wouldn’t have this problem,” he said, adding the building complied with construction codes.
Jacobson said the sprinklers were working and went off, but they were no match for these flames.
“It doesn’t get every area,” he said. “It gets the common areas where you can egress and get out. It gets your apartment. All the little voids inside every nook and cranny in the walls? No.”
Jacobson said crews simultaneously battled the fire while doing door-to-door searches and pulling people from the balconies.
“We had a crew trapped on the balcony with a victim; we had to rescue them with ground ladders from the back of the building. That was my concern first, not the building,” he said.
Firefighters from across New Jersey and from the FDNY helped battle the blaze. It was raised to more than five alarms Wednesday night and grew so large that the flames were visible from Midtown Manhattan.
As CBS2’s Sonia Rincon reported, the Bergen County Arson Squad investigated where and how the fire started, even though it later turned out to be accidental.
“A fire of this magnitude is an automatic response for the arson squad,” Skidmore said.
Schools were closed Thursday and will remain closed Friday. McPartland said access to some roads around the building would be restricted.
In all, 240 units were destroyed, permanently displacing about 500 residents, McPartland said. An additional 520 residents from other Avalon buildings have also been displaced, McPartland said.
“Don’t know where to even start,” resident Seoung Ju Won told CBS2’s Janelle Burrell.
“It was like a volcano eruption, really,” said resident Angela Nyagu. “That’s what I watched on TV before, how volcanoes erupt. Now I witnessed that myself.”
Among the residents of the complex was Yankees announcer John Sterling, who talked to CBS2 about his experience.
“I walked to the building and smelled smoke, and I went out to my floor where my apartment is, and the smoke was so bad I couldn’t see, and I thought, ‘Hey, we’d better get out of here,’” Sterling said.
And many residents, including Limor Yoskowitz-Frinomas, were still waiting to hear whether their homes were destroyed.
“We’re hoping for the best,” she said. “My kids are OK, so I’m OK, and we’ll take it from there.”
There were no reports of any missing persons, but McPartland said two civilians and two firefighters suffered minor injuries. He said some pets were rescued from the blaze, but some did die in the fire.
One woman told CBS2’s Meg Baker that her dogs were both killed.
“I saw gulfing flames coming out of the building, and unfortunately, I have two dogs that perished in the fire – Hailey and Griffin,” the woman said.
This isn’t the first time the very same apartment complex has been engulfed in flames.
In August of 2000, the complex was under construction when a fast-moving fire tore through it. The flames also destroyed a dozen surrounding homes, displacing up to 70 people.
The 2000 fire was ruled accidental by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. No deaths or serious injuries were reported.