By Karen Zautyk
It was about 14 degrees, with a wind-chill factor making it feel more like 5, when the 911 calls started coming in to the North Arlington Volunteer Fire Department last Wednesday morning.
The firefighters who responded immediately to the blaze at Par-Metal Products at 29 Ewing Ave., just off Schuyler Ave., found the building virtually engulfed in fire, with flames coming out the front garage door and smoke pouring from the windows, Fire Chief Mark Zidiak reported.
“We never even got a chance to get in the building,” Zidiak said, noting that “at one point, we had the entire roof collapse.”
But it wasn’t only the inferno with which the firefighters had to contend. The frigid temperatures had led to frozen hydrants and water lines, which meant low water pressure. “We had to keep moving farther and farther away to get more water,” the chief said. And when the hoses were turned on, the water that splashed the street turned to ice.
A borough salt truck was called to the scene, but the footing remained treacherous. Even firemen’s boots aren’t much help when you’re trying to haul an ice-heavy hose over a virtual skating rink.
The first North Arlington units were on the scene as the 911 calls started at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. Despite crews from 11 other fire departments who assisted the NAFD, the blaze wasn’t declared under control until 9:30 p.m., and the last unit didn’t leave until 4:30 a.m. Thursday. That amounts to 17 hours’ work on site in the bone-chilling cold.
A total of 14 engines and four ladder trucks responded from North Arlington, Kearny, East Newark, Lyndhurst, Belleville, Rutherford, East Rutherford, Wallington, Carlstadt, Wood-Ridge, Lodi and Little Ferry.
“The guys were covered in ice. The apparatus were covered in ice,” Zidiak commented.
And when it was all over, nothing was left of the twostory wood-and-concrete block building but a wall and a massive pile of debris – with icicles suspended from a few remaining girders.
Ice from the hoses also coated the wall of an adjacent commercial building, which reportedly suffered only minimal damage, some melted siding. The firefighters had been contending with five separate exposures; “we had to protect three in the back and one on each side,” Zidiak said.
The cause of the blaze is under investigation, but it is believed to have started when sparks from metal-grinding apparatus in the warehouse/ factory ignited combustible materials. Reportedly, workers had attempted to douse the flames with fire extinguishers.
All 15 employees in the building were safely evacuated. One firefighter suffered a minor injury, a sprained wrist, and was treated and released from Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville.
During the marathon battle, comfort and aid were provided by the Borough of Moonachie, whose rescue squad set up a heated tent where the firefighters could get some temporary, much-needed warmth.
Local businesses also provided food for the crews during the long night, Zidiak said.