An official at the Applied Companies, which owns the building at 1203 Washington St., said last week that the fire was believed to have begun in the room where Seth Dembowitz, 28, perished. Since the ceiling collapsed overhead and there was extensive damage, fire officials might never obtain conclusive evidence as to what caused the blaze.
Dembowitz, who graduated from Rutgers, was a Bear Sterns employee and Cherry Hill native. He was also a sports enthusiast and Red Sox fan. He was described last week by co-worker and fellow Hoboken resident Jonathan Gordon as a "fine young man who was wonderful to work with and [who] will be missed." According to both Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio and Acting Hoboken Fire Chief Richard Blohm, the matter is still under investigation.
Dembowitz's body was found beneath much of the debris that collected in his bedroom from the collapsing structure above, according to DeFazio. Both officials said that the Regional Medical Examiner's Office requested dental records for identification purposes.
Although there is no explanation yet as to why the 28-year-old was unable to escape the blaze, the presumption, according to DeFazio, is that the victim was asleep at the time it began, and the collapse of the ceiling immobilized him to the point where he could not escape the fire. Officials said they believe the fire was smoldering in the apartment for some time before it was somehow exposed to oxygen, allowing it to spread into another area of the building.
Dembowitz's roommate, who also works for Bear Stearns, managed to get out of he apartment, However, he received first, second, and third degree burns to his hands and forearms, as well as having his eyebrows singed.
According to DeFazio, the roommate, who is around the same age as Dembowitz, has been interviewed by the prosecutor. DeFazio added that although the investigation is still ongoing, the cause of the fire does not appear to be arson and the roommate is not considered a suspect.
According to DeFazio, there was a third roommate. However, he could not release information about him.
As of Friday morning, residents who were initially evacuated from the multi-building complex at 12th and Washington streets have not yet been allowed to return to their residences.
According to Red Cross representative Michelle Lemieux, approximately 18 individuals displaced by the fire are staying at a makeshift shelter located in the Wallace Elementary School at 1100 Willow Ave. The remaining individuals who were unable to return have found lodging with relatives or elsewhere.
According to Applied Companies founder Joseph Barry, 66 apartments in the complex were evacuated because of the fire, but only 10 units were directly affected by the blaze. Another five units were close enough to the blaze that they cannot be immediately re-occupied. The remaining 51 units may be ready for re-occupancy as soon as next Wednesday, Feb. 6, if Construction Code Official Al Arezzo deems the building structurally sound.
In an interview Thursday morning, Arezzo said that he had already met with Applied's architect and would be conducting inspections of the facility on both Thursday and Friday to explore further structural conditions. Before anyone is allowed to return, all electrical fire equipment in the various apartments and public areas must be re-tested.
The 15 units that are presently unhabitable are expected to take at least six months to reconstruct, according to Barry, who added that all fire victims will be given the opportunity to return to Applied units in the future.
Applied manages more than 1,500 federally subsidized and market-rate units in Hoboken. The building that caught fire contained both types of units.
Tenants of the building who were displaced as a result of the fire will not have to pay rent from the day they were forced to leave until when they are able return to their apartments, according to Applied Property Management Senior Vice President Leigh Carr.
During a Tuesday afternoon press conference at City Hall, Blohm acknowledged that there were no sprinklers in the building, adding that "the fire would not have gotten as far if there were sprinklers." Blohm added that the building was up to code and the fire was in no way the property owner's fault.
The buildings, which according to Barry were completed in 1910, were purchased by Applied in the early 1970s and refurbished in 1974. At the time, the safety regulations imposed on new residential structures in Hoboken were not in place. Applied conformed with and in some places exceeded the safety regulations of 1974, Barry said.
Each apartment has a battery-operated smoke detector, although they are not hooked up to a centralized alert system.
In the building's hallways, smoke detectors are connected to a centralized alarm system, which notifies another agency, which in turn contacts the local Fire Department.
When the smoke spread to the hallways, the HFD became aware of the situation.
Each apartment has a fireproof door and is enclosed with walls that can prevent fires from spreading to another apartment for up to an hour, which according to Blohm, is standard.
In the stairways, however, the fire can be contained for up to two hours.
According to Hoboken's fire marshall, Fire Captain Robert Falco, all residential buildings with three or more units are required to have an interconnected fire alarm system, so if the smoke detector goes off in one unit, individuals in the other units are made aware of it and can notify authorities.
Falco added that any construction that was built or refurbished after January of 1977 and is greater than four or more stories must have a central alarm system that reports directly back to the city's Fire Department. Although this direct link to the Fire Department can be established for smaller residential buildings, it is not required.
In addition to this, there is currently a resolution being considered by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs that, if approved, would require that buildings above 75 feet in height that are exempt from the 1977 safety regulations add sprinklers throughout their structure.
Since the Applied buildings in question are only five stories high, they are too small to be affected by the proposed resolution. Although Barry said that he will not be putting sprinklers into the buildings in question, he did say that he was considering installing smoke detectors in apartments that are connected to the central alarm system, so if another fire were to arise, authorities would be notified before it spreads into a common area.
How you can help
Various community members pitched in to help the fire victims last week.
In addition to the Red Cross of Northern New Jersey setting up a temporary shelter at the Wallace School, the Hoboken North Hudson YMCA, located a block north of the fire, opened its doors to provide a safe environment for fire victims to go the morning of the fire. In addition, the "Y" has been collecting clothing items for the victims, some of whom having lost everything they own.
People may still donate at the YMCA at 1301 Washington St.
On the morning of the tragedy, Applied's office on 14th Street, two blocks north from the site, opened up its doors for displaced residents, providing them with coffee and a place to congregate.
Raul Morales, the senior vice president of Applied Companies, said, "At 1:20 a.m., our doors were open and we had more than 100 people in there until 7:30 a.m. when the Red Cross took them to Wallace."
In addition, several City Council members have initiated funds to support the fire victims.
Second Ward Councilwoman Elizabeth Mason, in whose ward the fire took place, set up a fund for the victims shortly after the fire called "The Second Ward Victims Fire Fund." The emergency relief fund is set up at Wachovia Bank. Those who wish to make a donation are asked to call either Rita Jersey or Diana Zaucha at the bank at (201) 459-0909. Donations can also be made by logging on to www.masoncitycouncil.org. Mason was also a key coordinator with the YMCA in their response to the fire.
The Michael Russo Civic Association has teamed up with Mayor David Roberts, the Hoboken Chamber of Commerce, and the entire City Council to hold a fund raiser in honor of the victims on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Elks Club at 1005 Washington St. Tickets are $30 each and will include free food and access to a cash bar. To find out more about the event, call the Russo Civic Association at (201) 792-6226.
Immediately after the fire, some of the victims were taken to Council President Theresa Castellano's store City Discount at 207 Washington St., where they were given the chance to select whatever clothing items they needed, free of charge.
As with any emergency that leaves residents in need, the city of Hoboken is accepting gift cards and checks, which can be dropped off at the office of constituent services in City Hall. All those interested in making a donation are asked to make the check out to "Hoboken Trust Fund" and write "1203 Washington Fire Victims" in the space allotted for a memo. - MM
Firefighters, police injured
The four-alarm fire was first reported at approximately 1:40 a.m. and led to 45 Hoboken firefighters being dispatched to the area around 1203 Washington St. The fire is believed to have begun in apartment 7D, which is located on the fourth floor.
The city's bravest were accompanied by three companies from the Jersey City Fire Department and three from North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue, as well as Hoboken police officers, who were first to arrive at the scene. According to a police source, seven officers sustained minor injuries as a result of their efforts during the fire, five of whom for smoke inhalation and another two for banging in doors to make sure the apartments were clear.
Police Officers William Collins and Ryan Dimone were two of the five who were treated for smoke inhalation, after they carried a disabled individual to the street from a top floor apartment.
Four Hoboken firefighters were injured at the scene, according to Blohm; two for smoke inhalation or fatigue, one for having part of the ceiling collapse on his head, and the fourth received five stitches for a laceration to his right hand incurred while battling the fire.
All four were treated and released from Hoboken University Medical Center the same day.
The fire was under control by 5 a.m. - MM
Michael Mullins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.