Nightmare on Elm Street: Morristown blaze displaces residents, destroys businesses on frigid night

Firefighters atop blazing building on Elm Street. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Firefighters atop blazing building on Elm Street. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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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.”

NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: Morristown firefighters battle blaze on 14-degree night. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: Morristown firefighters battle blaze on 14-degree night. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Firefighters atop blazing building on Elm Street. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Firefighters atop blazing building on Elm Street. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Firefighter Tom Gaylord is caked in ice. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Firefighter Tom Gaylord is caked in ice. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“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.

Gusty winds blows smoke from Elm Street fire. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Gusty winds blows smoke from Elm Street fire. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.”

DISPLACED: The Perez family: (From left), Marla, Alex, 8, and Katherine, 6, and Rolando. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
DISPLACED: The Perez family: (From left), Marla, Alex, 8, and Katherine, 6, and Rolando. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
UP IN SMOKE: Sergio Barnal, left, and Tom O'Donnell lost their apartments in Elm Street blaze. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
UP IN SMOKE: Sergio Barnal, left, and Tom O’Donnell lost their apartments in Elm Street blaze. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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33 COMMENTS

  1. Kevin-
    Thanks so much for informing us as to the details of this tragedy. I always know I can count on you to report the facts accurately and quickly. As far as the “resident”, the only one to comment in a negative and unhelpful manner, too bad you chose to use this forum to criticize others instead of using your energy to do something good. Try it, you might like it!

  2. I’m in shock! I live on Hamilton Road at South St. and I saw and heard nothing last night, only learning of this tragedy just now via the internet. My heart breaks for the families and individuals who lost their homes and all of their possessions in the fire. I’m sure I can contribute some clothing and outer wear and maybe shoes if the size is right. I’ll watch for instructions on donating. And I’m devastated by the loss of Dell’s Novelty which was not only a Morristown landmark, but a treasure trove for me for the past 44 years as I relied on their selection of costumes and other novelties for parties, plays, Halloween, decorations for fund raising galas . . . just everything you could never find anywhere else outside of Manhattan, and all in one convenient shop. Then there was the old August Moon Restaurant, and the Hunan Wok for great Chinese Take-Out, and the newer establishments I was less familiar with . . . I’m thankful that no lives were lost, but I’m just so very sad and sorry for everyone and every business affected by this terrible calamity.

  3. Our hearts go out to everyone affected and displaced. Such a tragedy, So shocked to hear of destruction of businesses as well, especially Del’s, as it was a Morristown landmark. Hang tight Phil and Cathy and everyone!!!!!!! This is just so shocking! Many thanks for the generosity of all the fire teams, the police, the Red Cross, many neighbors and other individuals. Vicky Willson and family

  4. Sorry to here about the owners and the renters. It was so cold. My brother Victor was out there fighting the fire. Blessed that all survived the blaze.

  5. What size clothes and shoes are looking for the familes? I already have a bag for donation, but will ask my family members.

  6. This is a beautiful thing the residents of this town always come through and to help those that has been in trouble,regardless of race . Morristown has great resources.I moved and I haven’t seen this kind of love or care here at all.

  7. Here’s another HUGE “thank you” to all the firefighters who were able to help last night!!! Our house was saved many years ago by the Mt. Tabor Volunteer Fire Department, and ever since then, I’ve been making generous donations! I encourage ALL residents to contribute as much as you can to these life-saving volunteers who are so vital to us all!

  8. As a local resident and one of the local Red Cross volunteers who responded to help the displaced families, I am so happy to see the support offered to our neighbors in need. Red Cross volunteers respond at all hours to help people affected by house fires and offers immediate lodging and funds for food/clothing thanks to the generosity of donors. In the last year, the Red Cross has assisted more than a thousand families affected by house fires in northern NJ. Consider supporting the Red Cross by registering to volunteer or by donating at http://www.redcross.org/donate (or call 1-800-RED-CROSS).

  9. This is so tragic to see such a huge loss for Phil and Kathy and for everyone who lost a home or business last night.

  10. Not surprised to read that Frank Manniello of the Red Cross was there to render needed assistance. He’s the hardest working Red Cross volunteer I know.

  11. My mother lived at 88 Elm St for 25 years and oved just a few years ago. The Perez family were her neighbors. Their kids are sweethearts and they are a hardworking family. Please let us know where to send donations.

  12. Any families or individuals displaced by the fire can come to The Godfather of Morristown for free pizza this weekend. (Valid ID required)

  13. So sad that these families have lost everything. I am happy to provide free real estate services to help them find a new home – Michelle Norton – Revamp Property Services – 201 874 9757

  14. I grew up on (the now gone) Jefferson Ave (off Franklin St.) but left Mo’town years ago. Still my heart is in my hometown! And although I myself am a single mom who often lives in a precarious financial position , I want 2 help! My daughter’s 10& we can send the one family lots of girl stuff! Please let me know where! My nonprofit acting troupe here in Minneapolis brings awareness to homelessness by putting real stories just like this onstage. The Red Cross is great but only pay for THREE DAYS of hotel. That’s not even close 2 enuff time 2 get a plan in place! So sad, our prayers are sent! I used 2 LOVE going 2 Dell’s as well: an institution in Morristown. Is there anything left of old Mo’town??

  15. A group of us are trying to get a fundraiser/drive going right in town at a local bar. Collect clothes, food, blankets, and other necessities needed. Please contact me if interested in helping

  16. It’s a devastating loss for Morristown and everyone affected. Del’s is part of the history of the town and the DelGuidice family has been integral to Morristown for decades. So sad.

  17. This gets me in the feelies,remembering Del’s Novelty, August Moon… Glad no one has been injured-thank you firefighters and all responders!

  18. Kevin, Thank you for reporting this and letting us all know that details will be forthcoming about how to help this family. Please report as many details as possible as I am sure we all want to help. Feel free to contact the Moms Club of Morristown and Morris Plains too as we Moms definitely want to help and can come up with lots of clothes for the Perez children.

  19. Please update us on where to contribute (what about a http://www.gofundme.com site), on what they need, and where we can deliver necessities. Let us know…food, clothing, blankets, and donations for new starts (kitchen supplies, tvs, beds.) There are communities ready to pull together.

  20. Great job by all the firefighters from Morristown and the surrounding towns, under such extreme conditions. So sorry for the losses suffered by so many, especially two of Morristown’s historic businesses Del’s and Clifford’s. One more thing Resident why not use your name so we know that with all the people hurting because of this tragedy you’re more concerned with the address that’s listed.

  21. I also have clothes- warm winter coats to provide for the kids and adults. I will be watching for updates on where to bring them. I live locally.

  22. The business addresses for that block are all Elm Street even though they are located on Blachley Place.

  23. The Red Cross and the town are working out those details. As soon as a plan is ready, we will report it.

  24. The police and fire departments are using Elm Street addresses; that’s how the mail is delivered. Thanks for asking.

  25. i might have clothes for the six year old and eight year old- please let me know. Does the family need winter coats? I have at least one coat for a small woman.

  26. The name of the street is Blachley Place, not Elm Street. But I suppose you couldn’t have used such a catchy title had you actually reported the details accurately.

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