By Ron Leir
Occupants of three multi-family residences were left homeless by a four-alarm blaze that struck the 200 block of Warren St. Monday evening, Feb. 25.
The fire, which local fire investigators have determined to be accidental, ignited apparently by an electrical malfunction (possibly in a fan), started in the cockloft at 209 Warren and quickly spread through the walls to the adjoining buildings.
No one was reported injured as a result of the fire and Harrison Fire Director Harold Stahl credited Harrison police with helping evacuate residents – including a man in a wheelchair – from six attached rowhouses at 201 to 211 Warren as the fire escalated.
Complicating matters a bit, police said a 34-year-old resident of 205 Warren tried to break through the yellow tape set up in front of the building during the fire, at 7:45 p.m., to retrieve personal documents and photos, yelling and flailing his arms at cops. He was issued a summons for obstruction of the administration of law and released pending a court appearance.
Stahl said that members of the HFD “did one fantastic job” containing the fire – with a big assist from firefighters called in from East Newark Kearny and Jersey City. The Secaucus Fire Dept. provided stand-by coverage locally.
Ultimately, occupants of 201, 203 and 211 Warren were allowed back in their apartments but 205, 207 and 209 Warren were tagged as unsafe by Town Construction Official Rocco Russomanno because of “significant” fire and water damage to the structures, puncturing roofs and charring rafters and ceiling joists.
Stahl characterized the cause of the fire as “accidental,” based on an investigation by Fire Official George Kondek who, Stahl said, determined that the fire began in the ductwork, above the hood range over a kitchen stove in the second floor front apartment at 209 Warren and ignited going up through the wall of the adjoining unit. Stahl said the investigation showed that “there was no cooking going on” at the time of the fire.
Nor was there any evidence of any fire code or building violations, Russomanno said. And no permits had been issued for any work in the building, he added.
About an hour before the fire struck, the HFD responded to a nearby Bergen St. residence – and not, as one published report said, to 209 Warren – to douse an unattended cooking fire, Fire Department logs show.
It was at 7:05 p.m. that six Harrison firefighters riding two engines answered an emergency 911 call about a report of a kitchen fire at 209 Warren, Stahl said. Later, as the fire heated up, they were joined by 11 of their off-duty colleagues, he said.
The tour commander at the scene, Harrison Fire Capt. Richard Henry, said the first responders, after spotting flames coming from the window of the second-floor front apartment at 209 Warren, carried a hose line into the building up to the second floor and knocked down the fire in the apartment.
But, as firefighters pulled down sections of ceiling to vent the smoke, they found fire in the cockloft which had advanced “the whole length of the wall – about 35 to 40 feet,” Henry said. “It was going pretty good.”
At this point, Henry said, firefighters – soon joined by a ladder truck and engine from East Newark – directed hose lines at both 209, and, at 207 Warren where heavy smoke had engulfed the cockloft.
Because it was a “fast-moving fire and we didn’t have enough personnel to control it,” at around 8:30 p.m., Henry said, “we pulled everyone out [of the buildings]. Due to the heat, we couldn’t get in there with hand lines.”
With the help of an additional engine and ladder from Kearny and two engines and a ladder from Jersey City, firefighters directed three streams of water onto the buildings from aerial ladders, Henry said.
At about 9:30 p.m. the fire was declared under control, he said, but not before much damage was done. So intense was the heat that it had burned holes in the roofs of 207 and 209 Warren and even the day after, the odor of smoke around the fire scene was still palpable.
“It’s unfortunate these were attached houses built in the ‘60s,” Russomanno said, given that the extension of the fire walls out to the overhang from the mansard roofs likely contributed to the relative ease by which the fire spread.
As the fire raged, Harrison opened its senior center on Harrison Ave. as an emergency shelter for displaced residents and the Public Works Department provided a bus to transport families there where volunteers from the town, Red Cross and North Hudson Community Action Corp. attended to their needs.
Two families have been relocated but most spent the night with relatives and friends, according to town officials who, however, were unable to say how many people have been left homeless.
“There are a lot of people going in and out of those apartments,” Russomanno said. “Some of the buildings are two-family [units], some three-family. We don’t have a head count.”
Each of the six buildings has a different owner. Municipal tax records list them as follows: 201 Warren, John and Rita Silva of Harrison; 203 Warren, Mei Ha Kong & Sara Chan of that location; 205 Warren, DBP-1 LLC of Wayne; 207 Warren, Lai Han Kwong & Kai Yu Chung of Harrison; 209 Warren, Jian Chen Jing Ren of Hanover; and 211 Warren, Sanjay Patel & Cimisha Patel of Harrison.
One resident who declined to give his name griped that some owners needed to do a better job policing their buildings, to prevent apartments being used as temporary depots for students and relatives and to avoid leaving household trash in unsightly open receptacles in front of their buildings.
“And the town has to be on top of this,” he asserted. “For our safety.”
“I’m here in this town 30 years and I know that Harrison wants to attract new development,” the resident added. “If they want to see that, the town has to make sure that buildings are properly inspected.”
In the meantime, the town and local school district are doing what they can to make post-fire life a bit easier for those children who, along with their families, have been burned out of their homes.
Harrison Schools Superintendent James Doran said the Harrison Education Foundation (HEA) and Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) are engaged in cooperative fundraising efforts on behalf of those kids. “We’re doing everything we can to support them socially and academically,” he said.
Despite the hardships they’ve faced, Doran said that all of the youngsters – seven boys and four girls — except for a 2-year-old from a family of four – haven’t missed a single day of classes since the fire. “It’s been seamless.”
And residents and businesses of Harrison have, as usual, been generous with their contributions, Doran said. “We at the Board of Education are just the center-point for all the goodness being demonstrated, just to funnel everything to the families.”
Of the 10 Harrison schoolage youths the district has been made aware of as needing help, two attend Hudson County Vocation- Technical School, one goes to Harrison High, two are at Washington Middle School, two are enrolled at Hamilton Elementary, one goes to Lincoln Elementary and two are in pre-school programs, according to Joan McNichol, district liaison for the homeless.
McNichol and PTO President Cecilia Lucas said that some youngsters “have lost everything.” Others, however, “will be allowed back in their apartments, so it remains to be seen what, if anything, can be salvaged for them.”
One of the families displaced had plans for attending an upcoming wedding soon and, fortunately, the formal wear for the ceremony was being prepared at a tailor shop so their recent misfortune won’t be a total disaster.
Funds collected through the HEA have been used to purchase school supplies and school uniforms, they said.
The day after the fire, some Washington School students – with help from their parents – “came in with prepared meals and tupperwear for their unfortunate classmates. Other kids brought in clothing.
“What we’re doing now,” Lucas said, “is to fundraiser for the families, to present them with gift cards to purchase what they need.” To that end, the district sponsored a “What a Difference a Dollar Makes” event last Friday where teachers dressed down and students wore “March Madness” shirts while donating dollars to the cause. The entire district raised $5,000 and the Harrison East Newark Elks kicked in an additional $1,000, Lucas said.
People are invited to make tax deductible donations to the HEA and all funds will go directly to the people impacted by the fire, Lucas and McNichol said.
Asked how the students were coping, McNichol replied: “They seem to be uplifted by the fact that so many of their peers and teachers and staff care.