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‘Suspicious’ fire at First Republic site

EAST NEWARK –

The state Fire Marshal’s office has been called in to investigate a “suspicious” fire this past Saturday at the former First Republic industrial complex in East Newark, borough officials said.

It took about two hours for more than 40 firefighters from seven area fire departments to quell the smoky blaze at the block-long complex at 900 Passaic Ave. owned by Alma Realty of New York.

No injuries were reported. East Newark Police Chief Tony Mondero said one of his patrol officers called in a “smoke condition” at the complex at 8:47 a.m. – coming from a fifth-floor window, according to Borough Volunteer Fire Chief Allen Yudichak.

However, firefighters arriving at the scene soon after discovered that the fire had originated at the northeast corner of the property on the first floor of Building 39 on the Grant Ave. side of the shuttered complex near the railroad tracks at the Sherman Ave. intersection, opposite the borough garage, Mondero said.

Firefighters encountered heavy smoke coming from the first floor and basement and used air packs and thermal imaging devices to make their way through the dark space while dragging hose into the building, fire officials said.

Yudichak said the fire damaged a section of the building’s heavy timber floor, part of which burned through and fell into the basement.

Rescue teams stood by with ropes as a precaution in case any fire personnel fell through the weakened flooring but there was no need to deploy them, one fire official said.

Mayor Joseph Smith, a former volunteer borough firefighter, was performing a couple of weddings at Borough Hall when the fire broke out but he got to the scene soon after the ceremonies had concluded.

“The fire was substantial to the point where it was coming out the eaves of the roof because it had made its way up the sides of the wall,” the mayor said.

Yudichak and Mondero said East Newark firefighters initially had trouble gaining access to the building because an entrance door was welded shut so they had to force it open to get inside and locate the fire.

The fire eventually went to three alarms and resulted in companies responding from Harrison, Kearny, North Arlington, Jersey City, Lyndhurst and Secaucus, Yudichak said.

Kearny Fire Chief Steven Dyl said his department sent seven personnel, including a deputy chief, aboard an engine and ladder truck, to help extinguish the fire, ventilate the building and assist with coordinating efforts at the command post. Harrison units took charge of the area in the rear of the building.

Yudichak said the cause of the fire remains under investigation. It will be up to state arson probers to make that determination, he said.

One of the possibilities being explored, according to police and fire officials, is whether vagrants may have somehow gotten into the building – where gas and power have been shut off – and set a fire for warmth. Holes in the fence discovered along the building’s Grant Ave. side is lending credence to that theory, although Yudichak cautioned that firefighters may have picked their way through to get access to the property.

It was only a few months ago that the borough and Alma agreed to settle a longstanding dispute about alleged fire code violations at the property, with the property owners having agreed to pay a hefty fine for what the borough considered a delayed compliance.

– Ron Leir

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