Close call for basement fire victim

By Karen Zautyk
Observer Correspondent


Restricted space in a basement apartment challenged firefighters who were attempting to rescue its sole occupant from a smoky blaze last week, officials reported.

The victim, a man believed to be in his 60s, suffered severe burns after being trapped in his bedroom, authorities said. He was being treated at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, where he was listed in critical condition with third degree burns. His identity wasn’t readily available.

The fire was reported at 3:28 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 12, at 131 Schuyler Ave., between Hoyt and Tappan Sts. Kearny Fire Chief Steve Dyl said there were two homes on the site, one behind the other, and the fire was in the one at the rear of the property.

Dyl said the resident of the first-floor apartment called in the alarm when he smelled and saw smoke. That individual was able to escape and told first responders there was a man in the basement unit.

Kearny Police Chief John Dowie said KPD Officer Chris Levchak was the first at the scene and made it to the top of the cellar stairs but “was beaten back by the flames and the smoke.”

Firefighters had to search for the victim, Dyl reported, noting, “It was a difficult rescue to be made.” Members of Engine 1 found the unconscious man in the bedroom but required assistance from other firefighters to remove him.

“It was a very tough situation in tight quarters,” Dyl said, describing the premises, including the stairwell, as narrow with a low ceiling. Compounding the situation:

The rescuers started running out of oxygen.

“The guys did an excellent job of getting him out and giving him a chance,” the chief said.

The victim was initially taken by Kearny EMS to University Hospital in Newark and later transferred to St. Barnabas, which has a specialized burn center.

The basement apartment reportedly is now uninhabitable, and there was severe damage to the first-floor residence.

Dyl said the blaze is believed to have begun in the basement living room, but the exact cause was not yet known. KFD Chief Inspector John Donovan in leading the investigation.

The recent storms and frigid temperatures added to the firefighters’ challenges. Dyl said they had to clear the fire hydrants and climb over mounds of snow. Water played on the flames quickly turned to ice, making for treacherous footing.

The Harrison Fire Department aided Kearny at the scene, while Jersey City and North Arlington covered the town.

Dyl said no firefighters were injured and the blaze was brought under control within 30 minutes.

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