Families in Morristown’s Historic District were evacuated from their homes Wednesday night after a downed power line set a fence ablaze, and an underground electrical condition filled three houses with dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.
A quick-thinking resident put out the fire with a kitchen extinguisher.
When all the people were safe, firemen went back into one of the evacuated homes to save five cats from the deadly gas.
Residents on Farragut Place said their lights flickered for several minutes after suppertime, and then they smelled something burning.
Around 10 pm, resident Chris Koenig said, she heard something that “sounded like fireworks.” It was a power line snapping behind Katie Bartlett’s home at the corner of Farragut and Colles Avenue. The downed line set their wooden fence on fire .
Bartlett banged on her neighbors’ door to warn them, and Robert Bensley of Colles Avenue grabbed a fire extinguisher from beneath his kitchen sink and extinguished the flames. His partner, Alice Cutler, had checked the extinguisher’s levels only two days earlier.
“Thank goodness we remembered it was there,” Cutler said.
Rutgers professor and author Michael Rockland was at home with his wife Patricia, preparing to pack for a lecture series– he is scheduled to leave for Austria today, Thursday–when his lights started flickering.
“We smelled something. We didn’t know what it was. We thought maybe something was on fire in our house,” said Rockland. Alarms started beeping.
“That’s when we thought it was time to get out,” Rockland said.
A REAL HEADACHE: DEADLY CO
At the time, he did not realize that the alarms were his carbon monoxide detectors. The smoke he smelled was from what Morristown Fire Chief Robert Flanagan said appears to have been an underground fire that also emitted carbon monoxide into the residences.
Carbon monoxide, or CO, is an odorless, colorless killer produced by combustion.
Morristown firefighters detected levels of 300 parts million in the Rockland home, and levels of 400- and 700 ppm in two houses next door, according to residents.
The fire department considers anything higher than 10 ppm dangerous.
Carbon monoxide gas can accumulate indoors and poison people and animals. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, often described as “flu-like,” are headaches, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
“People who are sleeping or drunk can die from CO poisoning before they have symptoms,” the CDC website says.
Wednesday’s incident is a potent reminder for all residents to replace batteries in their CO- and smoke detectors when they turn back their clocks this weekend, said Deputy Fire Chief Jon Prachthauser.
Rockland said he experienced a headache on Wednesday, which was unusual because “and I don’t have headaches.”
Susannah Harris, Rockland’s neighbor on Farragut Place, said she and her husband also had “terrible headaches” as events unfolded. They smelled something burning, lights flickered for about 10 minutes, and then “things were beeping.”
“We thought the stove was going off and on. But it was our CO detector,” Harris said. “I said, ‘Get the dogs, we’ve got to get out of here.'”
Jersey Central Power and Light on Thursday was investigating what caused problems with two wires– the overhead line that came down, and the line beneath Farragut Place that caused the smoky conditions in the homes, said spokesman Ron Morano. Power temporarily was shut off for six customers, he said.
A few years ago, JCP&L made extensive upgrades to its underground network in the downtown, a couple of blocks away, after an explosion at the Morristown & Township Library and a series of underground fires and exploding manhole covers.
FIREMEN SAVE SNUGGLES
Jersey Central repair crews were on Farragut Place on Thursday morning, as residents were allowed to return to their homes after Morristown firefighters found no more CO.
Residents praised firemen for arriving swiftly on Wednesday night and staying into the wee hours. Morristown’s department was assisted by Morris Township.
“The firemen were great,” said Jennifer Hauser, grateful for their rescue of all five of her cats from her CO-filled home.
(She is married to concert pianist Sebastián Forster, prompting a neighbor to ask if he would grab her first or the piano in a real fire. “Probably me,” Hauser said, “because I’m lighter.”)
Hauser’s cats spent the night across the street, safely locked in neighbor Trish Grushkin’s wine cellar–away from Mabel and Nigel, the Harris family’s dogs, also evacuated there.
The Harrises and their three kids were overnight guests, too.
“It takes a village. It really does,” Susannah Harris said.
Trish Grushkin said she jokingly asked Mayor Tim Dougherty for temporary permission to operate a bed-and-breakfast.
For Michael Rockland, who “scared the hell” out of a neighbor when he knocked on the door seeking a bunk for the night, Wednesday’s close call was the most traumatic event on Farragut Place since Meryl Streep “died” in his dining room nearly 20 years ago.
It was a scene for the movie One True Thing.