The businesses were located at 3611-3623 Park Ave. The fire, whose first alarm was called in at 9:24 p.m., quickly escalated to four alarms, necessitating the assistance of the Jersey City Fire Department. Streets were closed off in Union City and Weehawken and electrical power to the southeastern section of Weehawken was cut. It was restored at approximately 3:30 a.m. Thursday morning.
According to Union City Police Captain Brian Barrett, who was at the scene, the responding units saw flames and smoke coming from the windows of the businesses. "It went to four alarms really fast," said Barrett.
Barrett added that a man was arrested by Weehawken police officers. He said they saw him "praying" in front of the fire. When he was approached by the officers, he resisted them and was eventually taken to St. Mary hospital in Hoboken for observation. Officials do not think the individual had anything to do with the fire.
The businesses destroyed by the fire were Model Hardware, Golden Connection Jewelry, Lisbon Variety Store, the Bella Vista Salon, Visio Self Defense and the San Miquel Bakery. Model Hardware, according to area residents, was a fixture of the neighborhood.
"I've been [in Weehawken] for 22 years and Model's was there when I got here," said one resident.
At the scene, thick black smoke blanketed the area. Burning embers floated through the air. News helicopters floated overhead and folks shivered as they watched the water from the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue's fire hoses quickly turn to ice on the cold pavement.
Union City Mayor Brian Stack and Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner were on the scene and used the "Paula at Rigoletto" Restaurant in Weehawken as a base of operations.
Stack was overheard ordering boxes of doughnuts and coffee from the Dunkin' Donuts on 47th Street for the firefighters at the scene.
When questioned about the fire, a dejected and congested Stack, who is fighting a cold, just shook his head. "It's amazing, isn't it?" asked Stack. "This is a really bad one."
The morning after the fire, Stack commented on the response of the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Department.
"This was a devastating fire," he said. "Once again, my hat goes off to the North Hudson Regional. They contained it to the structure and kept it from spreading any further."
North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Director Jeff Welz commented on the fire the following morning. "We believe that the fire originated in the basement of 3617 Park Avenue, which was the dollar store," he said. "That store was in the middle of the five stores, and the flames went up the common ceiling and spread to the other businesses. This fire was enhanced by a natural gas leak. In fact, when our firefighters got to the scene and opened up a vent, they reported that they could see a blue flame shooting 15 feet into the air."
Welz added that the fire was declared under control at 4:44 a.m. and that three firefighters sustained minor injuries. They were taken to Palisades General Hospital where they were treated and released.
As a result of the roof collapsing onto what was left of the structure, a crane was brought in to lift the roof. This will hopefully allow investigators from the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office's Arson Investigation Squad and the Union City Police Department's Arson Squad to get into the basement and figure out what started the blaze.
According to Stack, the main problem was gas mains that existed within the wood-framed structures. Public Service Electric & Gas had trouble turning the gas lines off, and as a result, the fire was continuously fed.
Stack also promised that Union City would do all it could to help the businesses get back on their feet and rebuild.
"We will do whatever we can to keep them in Union City," said the mayor.
As much Weehawken's loss as Union City's
For many years, both Weehawken and Union City have been working on a revitalization plan that could benefit Park Avenue. Now, with more than a half of a block wiped away in a single night, the plans will come more slowly.
"There are two ways to look at this," Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner said. "Sure, it's a definite setback to the revitalization plans. We lost a whole building complex with six stores. For those businesses, it's a tremendous loss. But putting aside the personal tragedy, that area no doubt will be rebuilt. No doubt, it will return to commercial use. In the long term, Park Avenue will return. Out of these ashes, something good will come."
Turner said that both Weehawken and Union City will work together to offer help in terms of the cleanup process, which should begin as soon as possible, as well as offering assistance to the businesses.
"This was a Union City fire," Turner said. "But it was also a Weehawken fire. When you have a road like Park Avenue, it runs like a lifeline between the two towns. When something like this happens, the boundaries evaporate. It's had a tremendous impact on Union City, but it has also impacted Weehawken as well. There are now less services available for the entire neighborhood."
Model Hardware, easily the oldest of the businesses lost in the blaze, was a fixture of the community for more than 40 years.
"I'm a contractor and I've been going to Model for more than 30 years," said Weehawken resident Edwin Benitez. "It's a shame what happened. I can't believe how it's all gone so fast. I was in Model Hardware every single day. I think a lot of lives are going to be changed by this. I feel so awful."
"I think more residents of Weehawken used Model Hardware than residents of Union City did," Turner said. "It was a part of Weehawken for ages."
The Bella Vista Hair Salon was owned and operated by long-time Weehawken resident Jackie Cruz, who was once the hairstylist for singer Paul Anka. Cruz was on vacation in South America at the time of the fire and was making arrangements to return home when she was informed of the fire.
"We offered our assistance to her staff," Turner said. "As soon as Jackie gets back, we're going to see about a temporary location for her."
The Vizzio Self Defense School, owned and operated by former world kickboxing champion Paul Vizzio, was also lost in the fire. Vizzio taught hundreds of Weehawken youngsters the forms of martial arts that made him world famous.
The San Miguel Bakery, which was also destroyed in the blaze, was a place that provided much of the bread for many of the area's restaurants.
Ben Goldman, a representative for the Weehawken Chamber of Commerce, said that his organization is committed to helping the business owners.
"We're going to try to so whatever it takes to assist these businesses in their time of tragedy," Goldman said. "They don't have to be members of our chamber for us to help them. We want to show them that we care."
Turner spent most of the night of the fire setting up a place of operation, along with Union City Mayor Brian Stack, at the Paula's at Rigoletto located across the street from the fire. "Paula's was open all night providing coffee and tea to everyone," Turner said. "S&J Deli and the Terrace Market also stayed open and helped people." - Jim Hague