A eight-alarm fire that started in the basement of 2103 Bergenline Ave. in Union City sometime before 9:30 p.m. Wednesday tore through three adjacent buildings overnight, leaving around 50 residents homeless and one missing as of press time Thursday.
“We believe his name is Alfredo, and we are doing all we can to locate him,” said Mayor Brian Stack on Thursday morning.
Besides the four buildings, two additional buildings suffered water damage, according to North Hudson Regional Fire Deputy Chief Frank Montagne.
Almost all of the residents were safely evacuated after the fire reached the third alarm. They were relocated Wednesday evening to Jose Marti Freshman Academy a few blocks from the scene, where city officials and the Red Cross set up cots and provided food, clothing, and medicines in the gymnasium.
Freezing cold conditions during 12-hour fight
Police received a call around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday reporting there was smoke coming from the basement of the building, Montagne said. Firefighters directed a water line into the basement, but when they couldn’t locate the fire and the smoke began to increase, “we pulled all our companies,” he said.
Temperatures were below freezing, and the water from the hoses coated roads, the building’s fire escapes, cars, and equipment.
Because of the dangerous conditions, 22 firemen received minor injuries, and one fractured his arm, Montagne reported.
Stack and his spokesman Mark Albiez had just left a community meeting and had gotten some coffee Wednesday night when they were made aware of the fire. Stack spent the evening, the morning, and a good part of the afternoon back and forth between Jose Marti and the scene of the fire.
“Even though the fire started in the basement of one building, the way the oxygen in the air above these attached structures circulates made it move so quickly,” Stack said.
Though the fire started at 2103 Bergenline Ave.; 2105, 2107, and 2109 were also heavily damaged. “Some residences cannot be saved,” Stack told a room full of residents on Thursday. “We will be in constant communication with you and are here for you in any way you need until you are thoroughly taken care of.”
Resident care a priority
Stack stated that the displaced residents will remain at Jose Marti for the next few days until the fire department can properly assess the damage and see which residents can return home and which cannot.
“My heart goes out to these families,” Stack said. “For those who are poor to begin with, to lose everything that they have – I just can’t imagine what that’s like.”
He continued that city, fire, and police officials will work with the Red Cross to coordinate temporary shelter for those who need it throughout the city, and will place them in hotels if need be. The city will provide transportation to and from school to children who need it.
Union City has a history of helping residents who are displaced by fires. Fires in the city’s old buildings are common because they are so dense and because they contain cocklofts where fires can spread quickly.
Still in pajamas
At around 12 noon Thursday, volunteers sifted through bags of clothing that were piling up in the bleachers of the gymnasium, donated by the Red Cross, local charities, and concerned community members. Many of the displaced residents were still in pajamas, as they were so abruptly evacuated in the middle of the night.
Cots that lined the gymnasium were littered with stray items they had managed to save. There were purses, a few stuffed animals, and a few sweatshirts, but not much else.
Stack reported that he had received a call at around 4:30 a.m. from Gov. Christopher Christie, who informed him he would try and help out in any way he could. Stack is also planning a fund drive for those who wish to help out, and urged the community to help out in any way they could.
Stack said the Fire Department would release an official damage report between Thursday evening and some time Friday afternoon.
Stack requested that donations be made in check or money order form to expedite the process. They should be made out to the Union City Fire Victims Fund, care of the Mayor’s office at 3715 Palisade Ave. in Union City, 07087.
Call (201) 348-5755 for more information, or to reach Stack directly at his cell phone, call (201) 376-1942.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org