Video: Nightmare on Elm Street
Firefighters from several towns braved single-digit wind chills overnight as they fought a blaze that displaced residents and destroyed businesses on Elm Street in Morristown.
No injuries were reported, but as many as nine families who lived above the storefronts lost their apartments, said Frank Manniello of the American Red Cross.
The fire appeared to destroy Del’s Novelty & Party Supply Co., a Morristown landmark for decades owned by Phil DelGiudice, chairman of the Morristown Partnership. Also heavily damaged or destroyed, according to the Partnership’s Jennifer Wehring, were the Mexican restaurant L’Estacion, Sister’s Nails, B.W. Clifford Distributors, Hair Magic and the Town restaurant, which was in the design phase to replace Sebastian’s steakhouse.
“This is very tragic,” Wehring said. “It’s homes. It’s businesses.”
Responding to calls of smoky conditions at 11:14 pm on Friday, police saw flames behind buildings from 82-88 Elm St., near the intersection of Morris Street. When Morristown firefighters arrived, they encountered “a heavy fire condition,” said police Lt. Stuart Greer.
Fire Chief Robert Flanagan said flames, water and smoke caused extensive damage from 80 to 94 Elm St. Between 20- and 30 tenants were displaced, and the structure’s interior collapsed, he said.
The fire finally was extinguished at 5:30 am on Saturday, although three firefighters were continuing to douse “hot spots” during the morning, the chief said. The biggest challenge for firefighters was the cold, he said.
“We had to rotate them in and out,” onto warming buses provided by the Morris Township and Morris County offices of emergency management, Flanagan said. At one point during the overnight the mercury dipped to 14 degrees, with gusty winds that whipped smoke in all directions.
The chief said he had no indication of what caused the fire. The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office will investigate, as it always does in these situations, he said.
Morristown firefighters were assisted by the Morris Township, Madison, Morris Plains, Cedar Knolls, New Vernon, Green Village and Whippany fire departments. Hackensack sent a special thawing team that used steam to keep hoses from freezing, Flanagan said.
Meanwhile, displaced tenants huddled in the Morristown train station along with restaurant patrons and employees who could not retrieve their parked cars because of the fire.
“We were sleeping,” said Maria Perez, who smelled smoke and escaped into the bitterly cold night with her husband Rolando and their children, Katherine, 6, and Alex, 8.
They lived above 90 Elm St. with Rolando Perez’s cousin, Sergio Barnal, who was working on Friday night at his waiter’s job at J & K Steakhouse when Rolando called about the fire.
“Clothes, money, everything. It’s all gone. We don’t have nowhere to go,” said Barnal, who works to support his parents in Ecuador.
Tom O’Donnell, 23, came home from a downtown bar to find his apartment above Del’s Novelty was history. He and roommate Boris Dzevel were waiting for officials to instruct them what to do next.
The Red Cross will provide hotel rooms, food money and clothes for three days, along with referrals, Manniello said. “Whatever they need right now, we’ll take care of,” he said.
Firefighters who stepped inside the train station had to pry open their jackets, which were encrusted in ice.
Spray from fire hoses turned Elm and Morris streets into sheets of ice. Morris Street was closed between Pine Street and Ridgedale Avenue; Elm was closed from Franklin to Morris. The Morristown public works department salted the roads, the fire chief said.
Mayor Tim Dougherty , who said he visited with displaced residents overnight, marveled at the performance of firefighters in the extreme cold.
“It’s amazing what those guys did last night,” he said. “They never wavered.”