The five-alarm fire that ravaged the Avalon at Edgewater apartments in New Jersey on Wednesday was ruled “Totally Accidental” by officials on thursday. The blaze was accidentally sparked by a blowtorch used by a plumber working in the building. While questions remain as to how the fire spread so quickly, Police Chief William Skidmore said there was nothing suspicious about the fire.
“There was nothing suspicious about it, and we have complete verification, and there’s no doubt about it,It’s just a tragic accident.”
Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland declared a local state of emergency after the massive fire tore through the complex sending plumes of flame into the sky. The fire was contained by Thursday morning, leaving only a few hot spots and over 1,000 displaced residents.
The fire, which could be seen from across the Hudson river in Manhattan, was reported at about 4:30 pm at the Avalon at Edgewater apartment complex on Russell Avenue.
WABC-TV reported that all residents were able to evacuate the fire ravaged building safely and only four people were hurt with minor injuries, including two civilians and two firefighters. Two residents had to be rescued from the building.
Out of 408 units, only 168 were saved. The fire also displaced more than 500 residents from surrounding buildings and affected 39 low-income housing units.
One of the displaced residents was John Sterling, a former Yankee’s radio broadcaster who gave a statement to the New York Times. Sterling came home around 5 pm to the smell of smoke, but continued up to his fourth-floor apartment.
“I opened a hallway door and all of a sudden I couldn’t see anything, the smoke was so bad, I said, ‘Hey, you better get out of here.’ “
Sterling found a hotel for the night but was worried that he lost his home in the fire. He received reports through the night and learned that his half of the building was hit hardest by the fire and lamented “I will have to start all over.”
Sterling expressed his gratitude that everyone in the Edgewater complex got out safely and was glad the fire didn’t happen around 1 am when people would likely have been asleep. John Sterling had lived in the complex for 10 years.
Other residents commented saying “It just keeps spreading, and spreading, and spreading,” and another said that “It sounds like a freight train,”. Most residents were unwilling to comment.
Displaced residents seeking refuge from the fire were housed in nearby hotels and the town’s community center was also involved in sheltering the evacuees. Whole Foods was taking people in and the Humane Society set up an animal shelter at a local American Legion Hall for the pets displaced by the fire.
One firefighter at the scene told reporters that the fire happened too quickly to shut off the gas in the building. He then described the following events.
“This is lightweight wood construction and it’s very difficult to fight because of the collapse hazard. It collapses very quickly and easily. It doesn’t give the firemen a lot of time to fight a fire in a building like this,”
When asked if the fire was a criminal act, Police Chief William Skidmore told reporters, “The arson squad responding is not an indication of anything suspicious or that we believe there’s a problem. A fire of this magnitude is an automatic response for the arson squad.”
Most of the structure had collapsed by Thursday morning with a few hot spots remaining.
“Everyone got out,” Mayor Michael McPartland told reporters, “You can always rebuild.”