By Ron Leir
The five-alarm blaze that ripped through two Latino restaurants, a church, and several residential buildings in Harrison on March 10 has ignited a political firestorm about the level of fire protection services in the town.
A count by the Harrison Mayor’s Office had at least 28 residents, including 12 school-age children, from the 600 block of Frank E. Rodgers (FER) Blvd. North displaced by the fire, which also extended to 8 1/2 Davis St. The Harrison Education Foundation is accepting donations on behalf of the families.
No civilians were hurt but five members of the Jersey City Fire Department were injured when an explosion – triggered by what some fire officials called a “backdraft” – occurred as the firefighters were leaving one of the buildings at the fire scene at 602 FER Blvd. North.
All five – including two superior officers – are recovering from burns, scrapes and bruises suffered when the blast knocked them into the street.
State Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association President Bill Lavin griped that Harrison Fire Department’s barebones staffing contributed to a near disastrous outcome for the Jersey City firefighters.
Jersey City Fire Chief Darren Rivers, who heads the Hudson County Fire Chiefs Association, is pushing for a meeting of his members to hash out mutual aid strategizing and to talk about Harrison’s staffing levels.
And Harrison Fire Director Harold Stahl said he also had concerns about the injuries to the Jersey City firefighters and about the preparedness of East Newark’s volunteer firefighters. “I’ve started a complete investigation, based on the photos that have appeared on the Internet,” he said.
Issues that Stahl plans to take up with East Newark include why the volunteers were “not wearing turnout gear” at the Rodgers Blvd. fire and a prior fire on Warren St. and the way they went about cutting the roof at both fires to ventilate those structures.
But Lavin said that Harrison should be reviewing its own conduct. Referring to the Rodgers Blvd. fire, Lavin said: “We’re lucky not to be going to a funeral or funerals. The responsibility for those injuries falls squarely on Harrison.” Lavin faulted the department for allowing minimum staffing [seven people per tour] to fall below its ability to service a ladder company – when a ladder truck could have “helped provide the very ventilation that could’ve prevented that backdraft.”
Lavin said the FMBA has persistently pressed the town to beef up its Fire Department to adequately protect its property owners, to no avail. “We’re asking our legal team to look at whether [the town’s inaction] was willful neglect and if so, they should be held responsible for that.”
Harrison Mayor Ray McDonough said: “All I know is that the alarm went off and we had 27 [Harrison firefighters] there. … This fire is a tragedy. Thank God, no one was killed.”
Should Harrison have more firefighters beyond its existing complement of 29? “We have what the state [Dept. of Community Affairs] and we have deemed to be an adequate response level,” said Town Attorney Paul Zarbetski. “If you’ve got a working fire, you call in mutual aid.” He added that the department’s ladder truck was “out for repairs” to its hydraulic system.
McDonough added: “If I wanted to hire any more firefighters, is the state going to give me money to do that?” Harrison, the mayor said, is strapped for cash. “I’ve let go 110 [non-uniformed town employees] in the last four years.”
Lavin countered that while “public safety is not inexpensive, it is the first responsibility of every local government to provide it and if [Harrison] says the state allows them to [maintain its minimum manning level], that doesn’t make it right. … Harrison needs to allocate funding to staff their Fire Department appropriately….”
Otherwise, Lavin said, “they’re playing fast and loose with people’s lives.”
Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos, whose town provided mutual aid at the fire, said he and Fire Chief Steven Dyl will be reviewing response times of the first-responder fire units “because I’m concerned that staffing [levels] may have [adversely] affected the response time and thereby increased danger to firefighters fighting the fire.”
Meanwhile, Chief Rivers is aiming for a parley next week with the representatives of the county association “to address better safety, command and control” in mutual aid situations, to explore whether Harrison Fire Department has the “resources, efficiency and ability to meet the demands of an emergency,” and to discuss the “overdependence on mutual aid liability and related costs.”
In the meantime, Rivers said, “I caution everyone not to speak disparagingly on Harrison’s performance [in the Rodgers Blvd. fire] until all the facts are in.”
The N.J. Fire Marshal’s office, the U.S. Public Employee Occupational Safety & Health Administration and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are all participating in the investigation of the Rodgers Blvd. fire.
Recounting the fire episode, Harrison Fire Director Stahl said that when the Fire Department got word of the fire at around 11 a.m. last Monday, a tour commander and Engine Co. 3 were at the scene of a motor vehicle accident with injuries on Rt. 280.
Engine Co. 1 was sent to the Rodgers Blvd. fire and, upon arrival, spotted “very heavy smoke in the alleyway between 602 and 604 Rodgers Blvd.,” Stahl said, and after further investigation revealed heavy smoke in the rear of 602 FER Blvd., Tour Commander Capt. Robert Gillen called for mutual aid from East Newark and Kearny.
Meanwhile, Stahl said, firefighters dragged a hose line into the kitchen of La Caravana, one of two adjoining restaurants in 602 FER Blvd., and knocked down the fire there but heavy smoke and flames had already advanced through the duct work and into the walls of the building so firefighters rushed next door to 604-606 FER Blvd., a multi-family dwelling, to get people out.
By this time, Stahl said, Kearny and East Newark had responded and, as the fire continued to rage, East Newark volunteers were “ordered to go up and ventilate the roof of 602.”
It was around this time – (Stahl estimates it’s close to noon but had no time log available) – that the backdraft occured, he said.
So intense was the heat from the fire, Stahl said, that Harrison firefighters – who supplemented their numbers by calling in off-duty members – lost two hose nozzles, six lengths of hose and some hand tools.
Asked about reports of an inoperable pump, Stahl said that all hydrants near the fire scene were working but firefighters opted to “bypass” one hydrant because it was starved of water due to heavy use of other nearby hydrants. He said firefighters tapped hydrants from Kearny about a quarter mile away to help supply an aerial attack on the fire from four ladder trucks.
Some 70 firefighters from Harrison, East Newark, Kearny, Jersey City, Lyndhurst and North Arlington eventually quelled the blaze but not soon enough to prevent the eventual demolition of 602 FER Blvd., which housed La Caravana, Pepe’s BBQ and a Latino Pentecostal church, Iglesia De Dios Luz Y Vida, upstairs. North Hudson Fire & Rescue provided stand-by aid at local firehouses.
Fire victims fund set up
The Harrison Education Foundation (HEA), a 501(c)3 charity, is accepting donations for the nearly 30 Harrison residents at Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. North and Davis Ave. who’ve been burned out of their apartments. Checks, payable to the HEA, may be sent to Harrison Education Foundation, c/o 501 Hamilton St., Superintendent’s Office, Harrison, N.J. 07029.
Contributions are tax deductible.