According to NHRFR co-director and Weehawken public safety director Jeff Welz, the NHRFR received a call at 10:15 a.m. Saturday that the four-story, 21-unit apartment complex right off the corner of 49th and Park was on fire.
"By the time we arrived, the first two floors were fully engulfed in flames," Welz said. "There were heavy fire conditions already."
According to Welz, the fire apparently started somehow in the basement, then quickly spread to the first-floor apartments.
"Our company knocked the fire down within the first 10 minutes," Welz said. "They were able to get in, open the wall, and extinguish the fire before it spread to the upper floors."
The blaze quickly became a three-alarm fire, with 55 firefighters responding.
Two residents suffered from smoke inhalation and had to be treated at Palisades Medical Center and released. A firefighter from the NHRFR suffered from increased blood pressure and had to be treated as well.
Weehawken Deputy Police Chief Tom McGorty said that it didn't take long for investigators to realize that the fire did not start naturally.
"It was ignited somehow," McGorty said. "That's why it was deemed suspicious."
Welz said that because there wasn't a "natural ignition," as he called it, the fire is still under investigation until a source can be found.
"It could be accidental," Welz said. "It could also be carelessness or it could be intentional. We don't know yet. That's why it's suspicious."
McGorty said that police detectives are currently interviewing residents and neighbors to see if they can come up with a cause.
Welz said that investigators found combustible materials in the basement, near the vicinity where the fire started.
"The materials were sent to a lab and we're awaiting the results," Welz said.
The blaze caused severe damage to the building's main electrical panel, which forced about 15 families to be relocated at either the Days Inn or Holiday Inn, both in North Bergen.
"Because there was no electricity, the building was inhabitable," Welz said. "The building's entire electrical panel was destroyed in the fire."
Red Cross helps
The American Red Cross was on hand to help assist the needy families with the relocation process. The township of Weehawken also offered assistance, initially with temporary shelter at the Senior Nutritional Center on Highwood Avenue before the hotel rooms were secured. The Weehawken Volunteer First Aid Squad was also there to help with any injuries or problems.
Welz said that there were crews doing repairs to the electrical panel in order so the displaced families could return to their homes.
"The repairs to the electrical parts of the building are proceeding as we are investigating," Welz said.
Both McGorty and Welz agreed that the fire had the potential to be a very dangerous one.
"The Fire Department did a wonderful job in getting on the scene and getting right on top of the fire," McGorty said. "They contained the fire to the basement and little damage on the first floor. It could have been a terrible fire. If the fire happened at a different time, like in the middle of the night, it could have been disastrous. But at 10 a.m., everyone was up and out. That was one of the advantages of the fire happening at that time."
Added McGorty, "With 21 apartments and elderly people living in the building, this had the potential to be a tragedy. But the quick actions of everyone involved saved the tragedy."
"Considering the intensity of the fire, everyone did a great job," Welz said.
McGorty said that the building's owner has been cooperative in trying to find the cause of the fire. The New Jersey Department of Fire Safety has joined the investigation. A determination on the fire should be made within the next week.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or email@example.com