By Kevin Canessa and Ron Leir
A multi-alarm fire of undetermined origin ripped through a three-story residential structure in Kearny on the night of Feb. 4, forcing six families — consisting of 11 adults and one child — out into the cold.
The wood frame building at 574-576 Devon St., listed as owned by Deborah Weber of Kearny, was declared uninhabitable by the town Construction Department.
No injuries to civilians or to first responders were reported and all occupants got out safely, according to local fire officials.
Deputy Fire Chief Robert Osborn, incident commander at the scene, said Fire HQ was alerted to the fire by two calls — one made at 9:09 p.m. by an occupant to the KPD and another at around the same time to 911.
The first KFD units arriving saw smoke in the street and stretched a hose line into a first-floor south apartment and a second line into the basement, where the fire is believed to have originated, Osborn said.
The flames burned partially through the basement ceiling, into the first floor and then into concealed spaces in walls, spreading up into the cockloft (attic), Osborn said. The fire then traveled horizontally into a third-floor north apartment, he said.
Rapid movement of the fire prompted a second alarm to be sounded at 9:26 p.m., along with a call for mutual aid, resulting in the arrival of rigs from Harrison and Jersey City. A third alarm followed at 9:56 p.m., bringing additional apparatus from North Arlington and Belleville.
Osborn said firefighters cut holes in the roof as fire “was busting out of the walls” in an effort to relieve the pressure and heat, building up in the building but as the footing became more precarious and the roof became “spongy,” a command decision was made to go to a “defensive” position.
At that point, Osborn said, “we called everyone out of the building” and five hose lines streamed water on the building from the front and rear of the property.
The fire caused “extensive damage throughout the structure,” Fire Chief Steven Dyl said.
A neighboring residential building at 158 Midland Ave. sustained some water damage as its occupants were evacuated, but they were later allowed back in, Dyl said.
Only a “well-coordinated attack” on the fire and “good command decisions” by Deputy Chief Joseph Mastandrea and Osborn managed to keep the fire from spreading to adjacent structures, Dyl said.
“The cause is undetermined,” the chief said, “without ruling out the possibility of an electrical fire.”
As of last week, an investigation by the KFD inspector was proceeding, according to the chief.
At the fire’s peak, there were four engines and one ladder truck from Kearny, four rigs from Jersey City and Harrison, two from North Arlington and one from Belleville for a total of 12 on scene, staffed by about 60 fire personnel.
North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue and the Bayonne Fire Department provided stand-by coverage at Kearny firehouses during the fire.
One KFD engine remained at the scene overnight as a safeguard against flames erupting but, by morning, the fire was pretty well consumed, Dyl said.
No pets were believed to be in the building at the time of the fire, the chief said.
Dyl said a social worker at the Kearny Health Department and a Red Cross representative provided emergency help to the family members, all of whom reportedly have found at least temporary shelter.
Some, however, “are going to need long-term assistance,” Dyl said.
Several eyewitnesses who were at the scene discussed the fire with The Observer.
“When I first got nearby, it was a lot of smoke coming from the basement,” said Pedro Ruiz, of Kearny. “Then, real fast, you could see flames coming out the windows. It was intense.”
Another witness echoed Ruiz’s sentiments.
“Those firefighters had their hands full,” Mary Cantor, also of Kearny, said. “One thing is for sure though. It wasn’t as cold that night as it could have been for a February night. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would have been for those guys out there if it was frigid out. No matter what though, they all did a great job.”