Although a full investigation is still active and a final report hasn't been received, North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue officials believe that a faulty fluorescent light in a basement drop ceiling could be the cause of a three-alarm fire that ravaged two Grand Avenue homes last Friday morning.
It marked the second straight year that an extensive fire occurred during Thanksgiving weekend in the township, leaving families homeless for the holidays.
NHRFR officials said that they received a call at 10:56 a.m. last Friday morning from Diane Leach, a resident of the scorched four-family structure on the 6400 block of Grand Avenue, alerting that a fire had begun in the basement in which she lived.
"The woman inside the residence said that she noticed some flickering in the fluorescent lights when she tried to turn them on, immediately called 911 and evacuated the apartment," NHRFR Co-director Michael Diorio said. "By the time our units arrived three minutes later, the windows of the basement were blown out and the flames were pouring out of the windows. By the time we got hooked up and began to run our hoses, there was heavy smoke and fire."
"I heard a sparking from the light, then the light started flickering," Leach said. "I just ran outside in my nightgown with no coat. Someone gave me a coat to wear. It all happened so fast."
Diorio was surprised with how fast the fire ignited and then spread. "Considering where the fire originated and how fast we arrived on the scene, I'm pretty surprised how fast this went up," Diorio said. "If you get there within three to four minutes, 95 percent of most fires get extinguished. And if it happens in a drop ceiling, there's usually smoke or something noticeable. But our reports say that there was only the flickering light."
The fire traveled so rapidly that it also engulfed a one-family house directly next door and charred the roof of another structure.
Nearly 50 members of the NHRFR, using 14 firefighting vehicles, were on hand to fight the fire. Within seven minutes, it became a three-alarm fire.
According to Diorio, the flames that shot out of the basement windows in the first building and extended across a narrow alleyway to the east wall of the second, where it was accelerated by flammable siding on the house.
The fire then quickly ravaged the second structure. At first, the intense heat made the fire difficult to fight, but they eventually got a three-point strategy to bring the fire under control by 12:27 p.m.
Six families had to be relocated by the American Red Cross and the North Hudson Community Action Corporation. Although no residents were seriously hurt, NHRFR firefighters Officers Charles Steinel and Nicholas Pallotta were transported to Palisades General Hospital for treatment. Steinel suffered a fractured foot and needed hospitalization. Pallotta was treated for smoke inhalation and released.
There were several other acts of bravery that took place during the fire. Local resident Ron Dioguardi was one of the first people on the scene and risked injury by going to save an elderly woman and her cat.
Fire Captain Michael Collette and Firefighter Mark Franco carried a disabled elderly woman down two flights of stairs and also helped two other disoriented seniors find safe passage. Firefighter Jonathan Rush was credited for saving the life of a 14-year-old dog by giving the dog "mouth-to-snout" resuscitation.
The fire totally devastated the residents. Upon hearing that his home was destroyed, Samuel Colon, who was not at home at the time of the fire, collapsed, requiring medical attention, and was also transported to Palisades General. The Leach family has no fire insurance.
"I don't know if we'll be able to recover anything," Diane Leach said. "We have no insurance and no place to go."
The owners of the second home, the Vonderlinden family, lost two pet cats in the blaze. They were in the process of enjoying a holiday family reunion when the fire hit.
Diorio said that he doesn't believe the fire was suspicious in nature, but a full report will still be needed.
"Nothing is indicating that the fire was suspicious," Diorio said. "But we're still awaiting a final report before we make a determination. It's still under investigation at this time. It really was a different kind of fire, because something that usually causes small smoke ended up having a big effect."