Boat storage fire was arson, cops say


As families were making last-minute preparations for the Thanksgiving holiday, one or more mischief makers were bent on property destruction.

It happened on Wednesday, Nov. 23, sometime during the daylight hours – possibly as early as about 10:30 a.m. – when retired firefighter Bob Muchnicki, a Kearny High alum and Lyndhurst resident, said he was walking in Bergen County Park South when he spotted smoke.

The smoke, he told The Observer, was coming from a rowing shell storage area near the Passaic River and “it was blazing away,” he said.

Muchnicki took photos to document what he saw.

Asked how the fire started, however, he could offer no clue.

Lyndhurst Police Det. Capt. John Valente confirmed that there was an incident involving a fire at the location, although he put the time at about 3:15 p.m.

At the site, Valente said, scull (oar)-powered racing vessels are stored outdoors on racks in threes and when the fire department responded, they found that “one had been lit on fire and was fully involved.”

“Before we got there,” Valente said, “it appeared that one of the red fiberglass [shells] had been pulled from the top of the rack and that was on the ground burning.”

That vessel was “destroyed,” he said.

A storage shed near the shell racks was undisturbed, he added.

Valente said the vessels are registered to the Passaic River Rowing Association, which leases space in the park.

Valente said that the fire was labeled “suspicious” and that the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office – which has jurisdiction over county parks – was alerted.

Anthony Cureton, spokesman for the BCSO, said the incident has been classified as “arson” and remains under investigation.

Meanwhile, PRRA President Ben Delisle disclosed that this fire is the second deliberately set this year. The prior incident was “a month or two ago,” he said.

“The motive is completely puzzling,” Delisle said.

In the most recent incident, he said, there were actually two shells ruined – the one from the top of the bank and the one immediately below which, he said, melted.

Delisle placed the value of each of the used, lost boats at “between $5,000 and $10,000.” A new one in today’s market could run between $30,000 and $40,000, he added.

“We’re insured and, fortunately, given the timing, we have the winter season to look for [replacements],” he said. Each shell, he said, is made of carbon fiber, measures 60 feet long and holds eight rowers and a coxswain (steerer).

He said the association has been storing its vessels at the county park for the past decade.

The PRRA, which has 350 youth and adult members from New York, Bergen and Essex counties and a few beyond, shares its boats with area colleges, high schools, he said.

While its primary mission is “to support youth rowing,” and to that end, sponsors “learn-to-row programs and community row,” along with “competitive programs for adults, collegiate and high schools.”

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