On Christmas morning, 20 residents of a Palisade Avenue boarding house managed to escape with their lives and little else as a fire tore through their building in Union City. Then, three days later, driven by heavy winds in the aftermath of the snowstorm, another fire ripped through two buildings on Park Avenue, displacing 25 more people.
The cause of both Union City fires is still under investigation.
Now, about two weeks later, the Brian Stack Civic Association and local landlords have helped some of the victims find new homes, but the community recognizes that their plight is far from over.
“The victims are still getting their lives together after this traumatic event.” — Mark Albiez
After the fires at Palisade and Park avenues, Mayor Brian Stack sought the support of the community. According to city spokesman Mark Albiez, the 20 victims of the boarding house fire were put up in a hotel by the Brian Stack Civic Association, and by now, the majority of them have found more permanent housing through relatives or their own efforts.
The Civic Association also put up 10 families displaced by the Park Avenue fires and have asked landlords to come forward and offer them temporary housing.
Federally-funded subsidized housing for low-income tenants exists in Union City and surrounding towns. However, Albiez said they were not able to place the displaced people there due to long waiting lists beyond city’s control.
The Civic Association, a private non-profit run by the mayor, raises money throughout the year through charitable donations and fundraising events.
According to Albiez, numerous landlords have contacted the mayor’s office to help with the “[victims] still getting their lives together after this traumatic event.” Landlords can call the mayor’s office at (201) 348-5755.
Local organizations, like North Hudson Coats for Kids, have reached out by providing coats, and a local IHOP restaurant offered food certificates to the displaced residents.
Anyone interested in donating to the fire victims fund may do through check or money order, made payable to Union City Fire Victims’ Fund c/o Mayor’s Office, 3715 Palisade Ave., Union City, N.J., 07087.
A boarding house in particular would be likely to have residents who don’t have a lot of money. A boarding house is a home where the landlord rents some or most of the rooms by the week or the month. Often, the tenants share a bathroom. Duration of stay could be a few days to several weeks or years, depending upon arrangements with the landlord. Many of Hudson County’s towns used to have rooming houses but are no longer zoned for them. Thus, this low-cost option for people down on their luck is largely a thing of the past.
At press time, Albiez did not know the rent paid by the boarding house residents nor anything about the landlord’s plans to rebuild.
According to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs website, the Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards is responsible for evaluating physical and social safety requirements for all rooming and boarding homes in the state. Physical and social evaluations can be conducted by the towns if the Bureau approves it.
Approximately 35 firefighters from the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue squad (NHRFR) responded to the two-alarm fire at the boarding house on Christmas morning. No one was injured. They still don’t know the cause of the blaze.
Three days later, on the afternoon of Dec. 28, 75 NHRFR firefighters battled a four-alarm blaze at 3807 Park Ave. The fire was contained within four hours, but not before the three-story residential building collapsed and the fire gutted an adjoining building at 3809 Park Ave. Four NHRFR firefighters were treated at Palisades Medical Center for minor injuries.
The New Jersey Division of Fire Safety, which is handling the investigation into that fire on behalf of NHRFR, has yet to determine the cause of the blaze because fire inspectors were unable to enter the building, which was classified as structurally unsound. Both buildings have since been demolished.
According to Welz, unless someone comes forward with first-hand information, the investigation may never yield conclusive evidence as to whether it was accidental or intentionally set.
The fire is believed to have started in the basement of the original building, then spread through the interior walls.
Buildings in area are vulnerable
According to Welz, the fire spread so quickly due to a certain type of construction found among older buildings in the area.
Some older buildings were constructed as one unit with common walls. At the center is a light and air shaft that runs from the ground level to the roof.
“[This type of construction] goes back to before air conditioning…to give some ventilation and light to interior apartments without windows,” Welz said, continuing, “Unfortunately, when there’s a fire, [the shaft] acts as a chimney.”
Other elements that contributed to the severity of the Park Avenue blaze were a common roof and a ruptured gas line in the second building.
Although Welz does not know the exact number of residences built in this fashion, a construction not uncommon to Hudson County, especially Union City and West New York, is the row house, he said. Row houses, which do not have a shaft in the middle but do share a common roof, precede modern fire codes that require fire walls between them. Units built before modern fire codes are exempt from conforming to them, Welz said.
The density of the housing in the area can also yield terrible results, as demonstrated by a five-alarm fire last June that tore through four two-story structures on Palisade Avenue that were separated only by a couple of feet, leaving almost two dozen homeless. A few months earlier, a four-alarm fire in multiple apartment buildings, also on Palisade Avenue, displaced 50 residents.
No matter where one lives, Welz believes that residents and landlords should practice fire prevention by updating and maintaining fire alarm systems, being careful with combustibles, and ensuring that electrical systems are up to code.