Seeing through the smoke Many still homeless after three UC fires; police arrest suspect

The investigation into the origin of the series of fires that took place in Union City on Dec. 2 is still ongoing while more than 100 people, including 28 children, look for permanent housing.

"We are still intensively investigating these fires," said Union City Deputy Chief Leonard Wolpert, who added that a task force has been set up to handle this investigation.

On Wednesday, Union City Police arrested a man in the area on a charge of arson, said Union City Captain Charles Everett.

Jairo Cardona, 51, of Bergenline Avenue, was arrested when police allegedly caught him setting a fire on 12th Street. According to Everett, Cardona is being held in Hudson County Jail in Kearny and is considered a potential suspect in the Dec. 2 fires.

"He is a potential suspect," said Everett. "We are following a few leads right now. He is just one of those leads."

Everett said that police have reason to believe he was in the area of the fires on Dec. 2 and that this is not the first time Cardona has been involved in the either setting a fire or having something to do with fires.

According to Hudson County Prosecutor Fred Theemling, all three of the Union City fires appear to have been set intentionally.

The North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue firefighters responded to four four-alarm fires between 11 p.m. Dec. 1 and 4 a.m. Dec. 2 within an eight-block area.

"This was beyond the scope of our usual call," said North Hudson Fire Chief Ed Flood, who added that three of the fires were burning simultaneously.

"I didn’t see anything but smoke," said Diane Antonicelli, who lived in 1018 Summit Ave. with her two children. "I very much doubt it was an accident."

"I was scared," said 23 year old Daysi Suarez who lived with her mother on Summit Avenue. "When the roof of the building started burning there were flames everywhere."

The fires started at 1016 Summit Ave. and spread to five two-story apartment buildings and first level businesses, 604 10th St. and 420 13th St., both residential properties.

According to Union City Mayor and Public Safety Director Brian Stack, demolition on the properties began Dec. 5.

Wolpert said that more than 40 Union City Police Officers were assigned to the investigation. The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, New Jersey State Police, the Bergen County K-9 unit and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau are also involved in the investigation.

Wolpert said that the fire on Summit Avenue appeared to have started in an upstairs cockloft. The fire on 13th Street appears to have started in a mattress alongside the building and the 10th Street fire appears to have started on the front porch.

Earlier that evening, North Hudson Regional firefighters responded to a fire in North Bergen at 3114 Tonnelle Ave. This fire took place in abandoned residential buildings.

While Union City Police Officers continued to investigate the series, a fire on 48th Street diverted North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue’s attentions on Wednesday. This fire, which took place in a rooming house, was considered accidental and not connected to the three fires earlier in the week. The 48th Street fire left 11 families homeless.

While no residents were injured during these fires, eight firefighters were taken to Jersey City Medical Center. Most were treated and released the same day. Firefighter Alexander Banoff has suffered a spine injury and is reported to be in good condition at the Jersey City Medical Center.

Under investigation

While the close proximity in time and location of these fires seems to be enough to link the three fires in almost everyone’s mind, no real connection has been found by investigators.

"We have not found any connection at this juncture," said Theemling at a press conference on Dec. 3. "That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to find it. It is very early in the investigation."

On Thursday, Everett said that police have not found a link; however, the manner in which the 10th and 13th Street fires started were similar in origin. Both fires started outside the homes.

Samples of possible accelerants found at the 10th Street and 13th Street fire scenes were taken to crime labs last week. No accelerant was found at the Summit Avenue site.

Wolpert said that the lab results can take up to two weeks to come back.

The lab results will give the police what type of accelerant was used, and the possible place of origin of the accelerant.

In the mean time, Union City Police Officers are using still photos made from three security cameras in the area.

"We are trying to compare and identify people in those photos," said Wolpert. There were three surveillance cameras in the area.

There was one at a day care center at Ninth and Summit, another at the ATM machine at the Bank on Summit Avenue and a third one on the Appetito Sausage factory building. These cameras are all surrounding the area of the fires on Summit Avenue and 10th Street.

Finding housing

Immediately following the fires, the families living in the properties were ushered to the Doric Recreation Center located on Palisade Avenue, which was set up as an Emergency Shelter by the American Red Cross of Hudson County.

According to Kathy Stack, who was handling the relocation through the Brian Stack Civic Association, five families had found permanent housing as of Wednesday.

"It is not easy," said Kathy Stack. "These are large families. Little by little we will find these people houses.”

Kathy Stack said that local landlords have offered apartments and many of the families staying at the Doric Recreation Center have been looking at vacant apartments. Two apartments were found through the Union City Housing Authority.

Stack is looking for anyone who wants to donate either money or other necessities to these families. Checks can be made out to Union City Fire Victims Assistance Fund. This account is being handled by the Trust Company of New Jersey Bank.

Checks can be mailed to the mayor’s office at 3715 Palisade Ave. For more information on how to donate call 348-5777.

According to Kathy Stack, when there was a 29th Street fire on Mother’s Day, relocation cost $10,000. Twice the number of families were affected this time.

However, finding these funds has been facilitated this time because a New York man who has chosen to remain anonymous has donated $25,000 to assist with the relocation of the families.

The man said that he was moved by one of the families’ stories that he read in the New York Times.

"He was like a Santa Claus," said Kathy Stack.

The 11 families displaced in the 48th Street fire were relocated to area hotels until permanent housing could be found.

The Brian Stack Civic Association is also offering a $5,000 reward upon arrest of the arsonist.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group