Fire at Edgewater Apartment Complex Raises Questions About NJ Fire Codes

By Mike Schneider
Senior Correspondent

The flames turn night into day as they race through the Avalon apartment complex in Edgewater, jumping so quickly that local firefighters immediately called in reinforcements and scrambled to make sure that all of the residents got out.

“Multiple rescues and different floors because the smoke had traveled through the building and we had to evacuate the people. We had people stuck on back balconies, we had ladders removing the victims from their balconies and the fire just, it took off,” said Edgewater Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tom Jacobson.

“We got an email about 4:30 saying there’s a minor fire in the building. It’s on Russell [Avenue], not to worry about it. They’re going to evacuate but that’s it. And then around 6:30, we looked out the window and it was just an inferno. And we just, everybody ran,” said Avalon tenant Jackie Voronov.

Some firefighters call this the biggest blaze they’d ever seen. But older veterans remember one just as big about 15 years ago, when the Avalon was still under construction.

The day after, the flames are gone but the smoke lingers on heavy and thick. Firefighters hard at work throughout the day and officials busy trying to explain how something like this could happen again.

“Well they’re two different fires and this is what the New Jersey state code is,” said Jacobson.

“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,” said Edgewater Police Department Chief William Skidmore.

Half of the 400 apartments were destroyed and many others damaged. And all of the residents are now looking for other places to live.

“My mother lives right here in the building next to it. We sat here for three hours just watching it spread, from this end of the building all the way down. Hoping that everybody got out safe and just praying that her stuff was OK because she lost everything in Sandy and we just got her back on her feet,” said Ashley Gorfine.

“It’s not safe to be in there. It’s too much smoke, you can’t inhale that,” said tenant Marisol Murphey.

When asked how long he will be out, tenant Shinya Yamamoto said, “About three months.”

On where he is going he said, “Maybe I’ll go and stay in a hotel.”

But what would they be returning to?

“It’s lightweight construction. It is a truss building, wood construction,” Jacobson said.

This isn’t the only wood framed apartment complex that’s recently gone up in flames. And some people are wondering if the fire codes here in New Jersey and elsewhere need to change.

“It’s not my job to comment on [the building code],” said Jacobson.

If he would live in a similar building, he said, “I’m not going to answer that question.”

If he is satisfied with the fire codes the way they exist now, Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland said, “That’s yet to be determined and we’ll go over that.”

But for now, Avalon’s 1,000 residents will be paying extended visits to relatives, friends or motels.