15-min delay in calling 911 ‘big contributor’ to Edgewater, NJ fire disaster

Reuters / Gene Blevins
Workers that caused the massive fire at a New Jersey apartment complex waited 15 minutes to call the fire department, having first phoned their supervisor. The devastating inferno that displaced over a thousand people was ruled accidental.

Plumbers were using a blowtorch to make a welding repair in a first-floor apartment in the Avalon complex in Edgewater, New Jersey, around 4:20 pm Wednesday when the fire began in the walls of the unit. The fire quickly spread, sending thick plumes of smoke high into the sky above the Hudson River.

However, the workers called a supervisor when the inferno began, and did not choose to call 911 for another 15 minutes, which Police Chief William Skidmore called “a big contributor” to the disaster. He noted at a press conference that the delay wasn’t criminal.

“It was an accident,” Skidmore said. “It was a tragic accident, but that's what it was. It was not a criminal act.”

Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), who was also at the press conference, said he was “relieved” that the fire was not a criminal act.

The 408-unit building was quickly evacuated, but the delay allowed 240 of the apartments to be destroyed as the fire grew to five alarms, the New York Daily News reported.

Firefighters struggled to contain the flames, hampered by winds and frigid temperatures. After emergency personnel first responded, the fire was under control for a little while, but then grew worse in the hard-to-access rear of the complex.

The five-alarm fire drew more than 500 first responders from 35 towns to battle the flames that blazed for seven hours. There was no loss of life from the inferno, though more than 500 Avalon complex residents have permanently lost their homes, according to the Daily News.

“The loss of property and the displacement is awful and difficult to deal with, but we're not dealing with the tragedy of the loss of human life and that's really important,” Christie said.

Firefighters were still at the scene Friday morning, putting out hot spots. The biggest obstacle to controlling the blaze was the building itself, made of lightweight wood construction, WPIX reported.

The last of the embers were extinguished by Friday afternoon, tweeted Christie Duffy, a reporter for the CW affiliate.

“You have a lot of open voids, open spaces, fire spreading quickly through the walls and floors, leading to collapses. In fact, a complex built here by the same company of the same materials burnt to the ground in 2000, while still under construction,” Fire Chief Thomas Jacobson said.

The same complex burned to the ground as it was being built 15 years ago. The lightweight, wooden materials used to rebuild are inexpensive and allowed the fire to spread so quickly, but they are commonly used in new construction and are up to code in New Jersey, Jacobson noted.

“The purpose of those codes is not to prevent the building from burning down, but rather to ensure that there is sufficient time and opportunity for all occupants to exit safely in the event of a fire,” AvalonBay Communities, owners of the complex, wrote in a statement. ”We are grateful that everyone at Avalon at Edgewater was able to leave the building and get to safety without serious injury.”

Christie called for an investigation to ensure the building met current fire regulations, and may review those codes as a result of the disaster, NJ.com reported.

The governor said he was in Edgewater to assure victims that the state was working to ensure the post-fire transition is as smooth as possible.

“At times like this most people are concerned they'll be forgotten,” Christie said. “That's why I'm here, to make sure people know that we won't forget.”

A local state of emergency remains in place, and schools were closed again on Friday, Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland said. He urged everyone to stay away from the area as authorities continue to work on the site.

Almost all of the displaced residents who have not found shelter are staying at local hotels, McPartland said. Many of the displaced received aid at a community center, where representatives of various groups, including insurance companies, the state Motor Vehicle Commission, the county, hotels and rental agents from other apartment buildings were on hand to help victims.

The town has set up a fundraising page to assist those affected by the fire.