All in a day’s work: Maintenance man raced into burning Morristown apartment; town collecting money for victims

'HEROIC' is how his boss describes Garvin Martin, who charged into a burning Morristown apartment on April 4, 2019. Photo courtesy of Nadine Martin
'HEROIC' is how his boss describes Garvin Martin, who charged into a burning Morristown apartment on April 4, 2019. Photo courtesy of Nadine Martin
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Garvin Martin has a newfound appreciation for firemen.

In a move his boss described as heroic, the maintenance man tried his hand at firefighting on Thursday, charging into a burning Morristown apartment.

“I give them a lot of credit,” Martin, 52, said of the firefighters who finished the job for him at the Manahan Village public housing complex. “I will never forget how quick a fire can spread, and how thick the smoke is.”

The Morristown Housing Authority was busy Friday assessing the needs of, and arranging temporary housing for, eight families–totaling 27 people–displaced by fire, smoke and water damage from Thursday’s lunchtime blaze at Building 6 of the Flagler Street complex.

Nobody was injured. Housing authority officials credit Garvin and fellow maintenance workers Rakeem Spotswood and Terry Findley with swiftly alerting and evacuating tenants.

Morristown Housing Authority Executive Director Keith Kinard with firefighters at scene of Flagler Street fire, April 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Housing Authority Executive Director Keith Kinard with firefighters at scene of Flagler Street fire, April 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

At first, Garvin only saw a puff of smoke from the second floor window, as if someone was smoking a cigarette inside.

He had been sanding a floor in a vacant unit of a nearby building, and was leaving for lunch when a man in the courtyard alerted him.

Garvin rushed across the courtyard and dashed up the stairs without thinking.

“I kind of blanked out,” said the father of three. He ventured into the smoky apartment to discover three or four blazing pots atop a stove, spewing “toxic stuff.”

Tongues of flame were shooting into the air and onto the kitchen wall.

Garvin scrambled back downstairs, and sprinted to the Morristown Neighborhood House, where he says he grabbed a fire extinguisher and returned to the apartment.

He estimates the round-trip took just 45 seconds.

Black smoke now was so dense, “I couldn’t see the flames anymore. I tried putting it out as best I could, but the smoke overcame me…I couldn’t breathe. I had to get out.”

Garvin said he banged on four doors and his colleagues got the other apartments. Firefighters arrived quickly, he said, and all the residents were out by then.

“He potentially saved lives,” said housing authority Executive Director Keith Kinard, calling Garvin’s efforts “heroic, outstanding.”

Although Garvin said the smoke made his head “a little fuzzy” on Thursday, he took Friday off, went to the hospital for an unrelated matter, and said he was feeling better.

His wife is a nurse, and one of his sons is a medical student, so the Rahway resident is confident his health is in good hands.

Mayor Tim Dougherty’s office has started a public funding campaign to help the displaced families beyond the weekend, when Red Cross assistance is anticipated to end. A similar drive raised more than $40,000 after a 2015 fire.

Although the extent of Thursday’s damage still was being gauged, “this is not going to be a quick fix,” predicted Kinard.

“We’re not talking days or weeks. We’re probably talking a couple of months” to make repairs.

‘I’LL KEEP PRAYING’

Manahan Village comprises 200 units and is federally funded, Kinard explained. Residents pay 30 percent of their income to live there.

Two of the displaced families will move into vacant Manahan Village apartments, Kinard said.

Insurance will cover temporary lodging for the others, though it won’t pay for their meals and other expenses, he said.

“We’re trying to make this extremely inconvenient thing as tolerable as possible” for the residents, Kinard said.

One challenge is finding temporary accommodations near the center of town for displaced families with children in school, said Maureen Denman, who chairs the housing authority board.

Another is finding temporary quarters large enough to replace multi-family apartments that were damaged.

Madonna Beston, left, was displaced from her apartment by Manahan Village fire. Neighbor Kelly Montes lends moral support, April 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Madonna Beston, left, was displaced from her apartment by Manahan Village fire. Neighbor Kelly Montes lends moral support, April 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I need more than two bedrooms. I’ll keep praying,” said Madonna Beston, who the Red Cross has placed in the Hyatt Regency Morristown through the weekend.

Beston and her three daughters and two grandchildren are sharing two rooms at the hotel. Their nearest relatives live two hours away in Pennsylvania–too far for her 6-year-old granddaughter to commute to kindergarten classes.

The family briefly was allowed to re-enter its five-bedroom apartment to gather belongings.

A nun affiliated with St. Margaret’s Church also arranged delivery of toys, games and diapers, said Beston, who is disabled and walks with a crutch.

“It could have been worse,” she said of the fire. “Thank God it wasn’t.”

The mayor’s office suggests anyone wishing to help should make checks payable to the Morristown Fire Relief Fund and drop them off or send them to:

Town of Morristown
Office of the Mayor & Administration
200 South St., Room 239
Morristown, NJ 07963-0914
Attention: Morristown Fire Relief Fund

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