Time for drastic measures Vacant Tonnelle warehouse has second fire in month; causes serious concerns
The vacant Evan-Picone warehouse on Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen was somehow set afire for the second time in six weeks last Monday night, causing township officials to begin drastic measures to insure no further incidents take place. A two-alarm fire broke out in the vacant structure Monday night. Four North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue members were injured fighting the blaze, which began under suspicious circumstances, officials said. Two of the firefighters were treated at the scene with oxygen, but two others had to be rushed to Palisades Medical Center, where they were treated for smoke inhalation. Officials are blaming this blaze - as they are a similar blaze in December - on vagrants who have been breaking into the facility on a regular basis. The warehouse has been vacant since Evan-Picone went bankrupt five years ago. The facility's windows and entrances have been boarded up for quite some time, but that hasn't stopped vagrants and perhaps mischievous teenagers from entering the facility and starting the fires. Some firefighters issued concerns about entering a vacant facility, citing similarities to a fatal fire in Worcester, Mass., when six firefighters perished trying to put out a blaze started by a homeless person's unattended candle. "There are some parallels to it," said North Bergen Fire Inspector Brian Boele. "From a firefighter's standpoint, it has to be in the back of their minds when they enter the building. They know it's unsafe and there have been a couple of fires there. We don't want to cause a panic situation, but there's no reason to expose the firefighters to any unnecessary danger." A report in a local daily newspaper stating that the Evan-Picone fires caused a "potential deathtrap" angered township administrator Joseph Auriemma. "That was totally uncalled for," Auriemma said. "That was irresponsible to cause such a commotion. And it wasn't productive. It's a problem that needs to be addressed, but it's not a situation to cause a panic." Auriemma said that the two fires at the facility have caused much concern for the township. "Steps to secure the building have already taken place," Auriemma said. "My indications are that the owners have already been notified that fines are in order, that they will receive a bill for fire suppression." Violations After examining the facility, Boele realized that the building had several fire code violations and if the necessary repairs were not made, then heavy fines would be placed upon the building's current owners, Larry Berger and Associates. "They have to insure the safety of the building," Boele said. "They need to provide security around the clock. They need a sufficient water supply to the building to bring the sprinklers back up and they have to find a better way to secure the outside to keep people from entering." Boele said that another North Bergen fire inspector had been in contact with the building's owners and that Berger and Associates seemed willing to make the necessary safety repairs. "We're looking to come to a reasonable solution and apparently, they indicated to our office that they are willing to work at it, before we levy any fines," Boele said. "It seems that they don't want to see anyone getting hurt. If they didn't seem like they wanted to cooperate, we would have made sure that the fine would be substantial." Boele added, "We don't want to downplay the severity of it. Any vacant building is a fire danger, but one this size is even worse. There have been two fires and people have been hurt. Because of the size, it creates an extra hazard and after two substantial fires, there's no easy way to determine the extent of the structural damage. Plus, there are now missing components, like open walls and stairwells, which are very dangerous in case of another fire." Boele said that some fines will have to be issued, but the extent of the fines has yet to be determined. North Bergen Police Chief Angelo Busacco has already placed the warehouse on the department's "trouble spot" list, meaning it will receive periodic checks throughout the course of the day, 24 hours per day. "Simply because it's vacant, it's placed on our trouble spot list," Busacco said. "But after two fires, there's a serious concern. Apparently, there are three doors that have a six-to-eight inch gap that the vagrants reach under, pull up the door and climb underneath. That's why the building needs to be secured properly as well, to make sure no one gets in there. The fires have been deemed suspicious." Auriemma said that if the building was deemed a construction hazard, it could be razed in emergency fashion. Some of the firefighters expressed interest in having measure taken. But the land and building as it stands still brings in tax revenue to the township. A razed area would not. "It could be razed if it was an emergency," Auriemma said. "But we're not heading in that direction yet." "My office cannot issue the order to raze it," Boele said. "We only have the power to issue fines." Boele is optimistic that a deal can be worked out. "I believe that all the agencies are working together," Boele said. "If nothing else, the fire department knows what precautions have to be taken there and we won't be running in there blind anymore."