By Ron Leir
Occupants of a three-story, multi-family residence on Fifth St. in Harrison escaped with their lives, but not much else, as fire raged through the building in the early morning hours last Wednesday, May 28.
Harrison Fire Department (HFD) logs show that the first Harrison units were sent to the location, 12 S. Fifth St., at 3:32 a.m., and soon after, a second alarm was sounded, triggering a mutual aid response from Kearny, East Newark, Jersey City and North Arlington. A third alarm soon followed.
North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue provided stand-by coverage for Harrison.
Firefighters safely evacuated five families from the huge burning building (an estimated 55 feet wide by 70 feet deep by 36 feet high), and, as a precautionary move, asked the residents of 14 and 16 S. Fifth St. to temporarily vacate their homes.
Harrison Fire Director Harold Stahl, who was at the scene with Incident Commander Fire Capt. Henry Richards, said: “It was a fast-moving fire that eventually caused a collapse of the third and second floors.”
Pending completion of an investigation of the fire’s cause, “Our best guess is that the fire originated on the third floor rear, on the left side of the building,” Stahl said last week.
A statement issued by the Harrison Fire Investigator Steve Fosdek appeared to back up that assumption. It said: “There was fire showing on the third floor in the rear on two sides. The fire quickly spread to the cockloft and spread across leading to the roof to collapse in onto the third floor. … Although the investigation is not complete, it appears that the fire started in the third floor rear kitchen.”
Harrison FMBA President Eric Houseman, who was among the firefighters involved in the initial hose line attack on the building, said that firefighters were hampered by “the wind pushing black smoke and fire into our faces, combined with the intense heat [of the fire] inside the building.”
At the height of the blaze, Stahl said that three aerial ladder hoses were training steady flows of water onto the building to try and beat down the smoke and flames.
Flying embers from the burning building carried by the wind landed on the north side of 16 S. Fifth St. and melted part of the siding on the house, Stahl noted.
At 4:45 a.m., Stahl said, he ordered a recall of all available Harrison firefighters to the fire scene. All told, about 50 firefighters from all responding fire companies fought the fire, he said.
“The men did a fantastic job,” Stahl said. “I want to thank all the companies that came in to help.”
Donna Post, a resident of 18 S. Fifth St., and normally an early riser, said she “saw flames shooting out of the roof [of 12 S. Fifth St.]. It was a terrible feeling seeing all the people scurrying around outside. I’m thankful everyone is safe and got out in time. I’m also thankful that my neighbors and myself were spared. I pray that if the cause of the fire was carelessness, that, in future, people can get it together and be more vigilant.”
The fire was declared under control shortly after 7 a.m. but a pumper and aerial truck were kept at the scene for the balance of the day and overnight to hose down hot spots, Stahl said.
Residents of the heavily damaged fire building weren’t permitted back inside but one woman managed to retrieve a purse from her vehicle, parked on the property, after fire personnel moved the car out of harm’s way, Stahl said.
By Thursday morning, the HFD and Building Department had turned the fire building over to its owner, listed in town tax records as Luan Tsao of Hawthorne. “He has a contractor through his insurance company who is going to either secure both walls of the building or take them down,” Stahl said. At that point, Stahl said, the Building Department will go back and inspect. “My guess is he’ll probably take off the top two floors, gut it and rebuild.”
The displaced residents were put up overnight at the Harrison Senior Center, which the town makes available as an emergency shelter in such situations. There, representatives of the American Red Cross asked how they could help.
Red Cross spokeswoman Diane Concannon said that a total of 19 individuals, including five children, including a preschooler and a high school student, were left homeless. (One apartment in the building was vacant, according to town officials.) She said the Red Cross, through its national Disaster Relief program, “is assisting with food and clothing.” And, she said, the Red Cross has placed two of the five families affected in temporary lodgings while the others will, for now, be staying with relatives.
Joan Woods, an aide to Mayor James Fife, said that the Harrison Education Foundation is accepting monetary donations for the displaced families. Checks, payable to the tax-exempt HEA, may be sent to the Harrison Education Foundation, 501 Hamilton St., Harrison, N.J. 07029.
Individuals wishing to donate clothing and/or furniture are invited to call the mayor’s office at 973-268-2444.