By Ron Leir
Five firefighters, all from Jersey City, were injured Sunday in a five-alarm Harrison fire near the East Newark border that left six families homeless, two eateries wrecked and a church ruined.
Cause of the fire is under investigation by the New Jersey Fire Marshal’s office in conjunction with the Harrison fire investigator.
Harrison Fire Capt. Robert Gillen said a call came in at 11 a.m. that the exterior of 602 and 604 Frank E. Rodgers Blvd. North, off Davis St. and just up the block from East Newark School, was involved in fire.
When the first responders from Harrison arrived, Gillen said they found heavy smoke and fire coming from a rear alleyway between the two buildings, La Caravana’s at 602 Rodgers Blvd., and a multi-family residence at 604 Rodgers.
The fire eventually spread south to an attached structure at the corner building – 600 Rodgers Blvd., containing Pepe’s BBQ restaurant – and north to 606-608 Rodgers, another multi-family structure.
Assisting fire units were called in from East Newark and Kearny, Gillen said. The Jersey City Fire Department was also brought in initially, to stand by to provide local coverage for Harrison, but, as the fire intensified, Jersey City firefighters were brought in also to help fight the fire, Gillen said.
At some point during the blaze, Gillen said, an explosion occurred at 600-602 Rodges Blvd., blowing out dust and debris onto Rodgers Blvd. and Davis St., and causing injuries to five Jersey City Fire Department members: Battalion Chief Kenneth Ratyniak, Capt. Robert Jaeger and Firefighters Gary Onorato, Scott McDermott and Joseph Healy.
Jersey City Fire Director Armando Roman said the five were about to exit the building when the explosion took place in the rear, knocking them out in the street.
All five were transported to Jersey City Medical Center for treatment of reportedly nonlife- threatening injuries.
Onorato was kept overnight for observation because his oxygen levels were “not right,” Roman said. The others were released with medications, he said.
Roman said Ratyniak suffered cuts to his forehead and to his face, neck and legs; Jaeger had cuts to his head and slight burns behind his ears; Onorato had a slight concussion and smoke inhalation; McDermott and Healy had back injuries. Roman attributed the explosion to a “backdraft,” which, he said, occurs when “temperatures build up to a high level, depleting the oxygen in the room and there’s no ventilation.” At some point, he speculated, “somebody opened a door or window, letting in oxygen,” and that’s likely when the explosion happened.
That image was captured by a passerby and displayed on YouTube.
About 70 firefighters from the five communities participated in the effort to put out the blaze, Gillen said.
No injuries to civilians were reported, he said.
In May 2011, La Caravana was the scene of a prior fire which, Gillen said, involved the duct system in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Because of the fire, the United Irish Associations of West Hudson had to reroute their annual St. Patrick’s Parade. It started on time, at about 2 p.m., but parade organizers worked out an alternate route, bypassing the fire scene. Normally, the route goes from Harrison Ave., up Rodgers Blvd. to Central Ave., to Second St., to Sherman Ave. to Kearny Ave.
Instead, the marchers proceeded from Harrison Ave., down Hamilton Ave., to Second St., to Sherman Ave., to Grant Ave., across the railroad tracks, up Johnson Ave., to Kearny Ave.
Kearny Deputy Police Chief George King, a piper with the St. Columcille United Gaelic Pipe Band, said the revised route added about 12 blocks to the line of march. But, King said, despite the disruption, the parade was “very organized” and the parade committee “took it all in stride.”