A three-alarm fire, fueled by dangerous high winds and frigid temperatures, raced through a Highwood Terrace residence in Weehawken Sunday night, causing injuries to five North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue members in the process.
Two of the firefighters broke their legs when they slipped on the ice that had collected during firefighting efforts. According to NHRFR Chief Brion McEldowney, a call was received about a fire at 80 Highwood Terrace around 7:08 p.m. Sunday.
“By the time we arrived at the scene, the fire was already engaged and flames were coming out of the second floor of the residence,” McEldowney said.
A second alarm was then called at 7:21 p.m., with the third alarm coming eight minutes later. Because of the high winds (gusts estimated at 50 miles per hour) and the temperature below freezing, the conditions for fighting the fire were extremely treacherous.
“It was extremely cold, and the high winds helped to fan the flames,” McEldowney said. “We were very afraid that adjoining buildings might catch fire. We tried to fight the fire from the inside the structure, but there was a fear of collapse, so we got the firefighters out of there and fought the fire from the exterior. It took a lot of hard work and effort to keep it from spreading.”
In all, about 70 firefighters and officers from 20 different NHRFR companies were summoned to the scene. Assistance was also received from the Jersey City Fire Department.
“It was a very extensive band of fire,” McEldowney said.
Started in basement Investigators believe that the fire started in the basement, found its way into the walls of the structure and moved up to the second floor. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but it is believed to be accidental.
According to NHRFR Co-Director Jeff Welz, the Weehawken Police arson investigation unit and a representative from the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety examined the scene, because of the severity of the fire.
“There were concerns about where the fire began and since it was in the wall for an undetermined amount of time, but it’s been determined to be an accident,” Welz said.
According to McEldowney, the strong wind gusts intensified the fire in a rapid amount of time.
“Of course, when a strong wind pushes a fire like that, there are many things that could hamper the firefighting operation,” McEldowney said. “There was an immense amount of ice that formed quickly, which caused the efforts to fight the fire to become hampered. The area was totally coated with ice.”
Because of the conditions, five NHRFR firefighters suffered injuries fighting the blaze, two of which were broken legs.
Captain Dominic Lorenzo and Firefighter Ray Colavito both suffered broken legs while slipping on the ice. Another firefighter suffered a sprained wrist.
Captain Mike Giacumbo suffered a severe cut to his hand from the broken glass of a window and received several stitches. Captain David Barth complained of chest pains and was taken to Palisades General Hospital for observation.
No civilians injured No civilians were injured in the blaze. The occupants of the residence were able to escape without incident. The fire was brought under control by 11:15 p.m. The NHRFR’s efforts prevented the fire from spreading to any of the adjoining buildings.
“There was only three feet between the houses,” Welz said. “They did a fantastic job, not only stopping the fire, but keeping it from spreading. It could have easily extended. This was one of the most brutal conditions for a fire that we’ve seen in years. They also saved the structure as well. It was fantastic work.”
Weehawken Department of Public Works crews helped to spread the salt to melt the forming ice. A neighboring business, Paula at Rigoletto, a Park Avenue restaurant, remained open through the night to provide a safe haven for both evacuees and firefighters.
“The owner [Paula Frazier] kept her doors open throughout the night, providing snacks and coffee to the responders,” Welz said. “She was a great help.”
McEldowney said that the Weehawken fire was the most extensive that the NHRFR had to battle in almost a year, since an empty warehouse blaze in North Bergen last February.
“It definitely could have been much worse, especially because of the conditions,” McEldowney said. “It could have easily spread to four or five buildings, because of the intensity of the flames and the proximity of the buildings. It was an excellent job.”
By Tuesday morning, the residents of the home were able to return to collect personal items.
The Weehawken building inspector ruled that the structure is safe and the building is repairable, which is good news for the owners.