Published in the Star-Ledger, Thursday, January 25, 2007
Fires rout 48 families in Elizabeth, Plainfield
Third blaze destroys Charlie Brown's Steakhouse in Scotch Plains
BY CARLY ROTHMAN
Three separate fires early yesterday morning displaced at least 39 families in Elizabeth and nine in Plainfield, while a third consumed a popular Scotch Plains steakhouse.
In Elizabeth, fire raged through three units of a Cherry Street apartment building around 7:30 a.m., forcing the evacuation of 36 other units and causing all utilities to the building to be shut down, said city spokesman Bill Reyes.
Two residents were being treated at area hospitals for non-life-threatening injuries, and one firefighter was also injured but stayed on duty, Reyes said. The fire was brought under control by 8:15 a.m.
In Plainfield, firefighters and squads from several communities took two hours to control a second 7:30 a.m. blaze in a three-story, 10-unit apartment building on Park Avenue, said Plainfield Fire Chief Cecil Allen. An adult and three children were rescued after making their way up to the roof of the century-old, red-brick building, Allen said.
Tenants had previously complained about a lack of heat, electrical problems and needed repairs. The fire remains under investigation.
The blaze at the Charlie Brown's Steakhouse on North Ave nue in Scotch Plains was discovered shortly before 4 a.m. by two workmen repairing tiles in the central bar area, who smelled smoke coming from a nearby wall.
The fire traveled quickly through the walls, consuming the ceiling and causing the roof to collapse. Eight units responded, bringing the fire under control around 7:30 a.m.
One Scotch Plains firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation and a second for injuries to his shoulder suffered when he slipped on a patch of ice.
The apparently unrelated blazes resulted in homelessness for dozens of families.
"We don't know what we're going to do," said Karina Chipantiza of Plainfield.
The Plainfield fire appeared to be electrical in origin. Seventy-five-year-old Plainfield resident Beatrice Moore turned on her television about 7:30 a.m. yesterday and saw sparks fly out of the electrical outlet.
"I saw the sparks coming from the wall and proceeded to get my family out of the apartment," said her daughter-in-law, Christine Moore, who shares the third-floor apartment on Park Avenue.
The fire quickly spread to five other apartments in the 100-year-old building, forcing the building's 37 residents to flee.
Firefighters rescued a man and three children stranded on the roof and tossed debris from the burned- out second-floor apartment windows, including some blackened photos and a strong box belonging to the Moores.
Chipantiza and her sister, Maria, who also lives in the building, were both taken to the Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center for minor injuries caused by smoke inhalation.
Karina Chipantiza was released by early afternoon and joined her neighbors at the Plainfield Senior Citizen Center, where officials from the local American Red Cross chapter were helping the displaced residents.
Alan Karmin of the Red Cross said five of the nine displaced families will be staying with friends or family, and four will stay at a Howard Johnson's motel in North Plainfield.
At least eight Elizabeth families are also taking shelter in area hotels, after a fire ravaged one apartment and caused extensive smoke damage to several others.
The fire, which began around 7:30 a.m. and was brought under control by 8:15 a.m., forced all residents of the 39-unit building to evacuate temporarily.
Two residents were taken to area hospitals for minor injuries, and one firefighter was also injured but stayed on duty, said city spokesman Bill Reyes.
"With some assistance and some elbow grease, we're getting everything together," said Andrew Asinko, who owns the building on Cherry Street.
He added he had evicted the resident of unit that caught fire on Tuesday.
"Cleaning up the place is going to be significant," he said, but expressed his relief that no one was seriously injured. "It could have been a lot worse."
This feeling was echoed in Plainfield yesterday, as families regrouped after the fire.
"I'm grateful that my sister is home and safe," said Christine Moore's sister, Anita Hunter, as the two waited at the senior center yesterday afternoon.
Karina Chipantiza and other residents said previous complaints about poor heat, electrical problems and other needed repairs have gone unheeded by the building's owners. Third-floor resident Yolene Auguste said the building has been cited for violations, and often goes without heat and hot water.
Owner Robert Mercadante of Dante Management denied these claims.
"I've been refurbishing the exterior of the building," he said. "Generally speaking, the building is in solid condition."
The Charlie Brown's in Scotch Plains underwent about $500,000 in renovations about two years ago, when a large extension was added onto the east end.
The cause of the blaze remains under investigation. In the mean time, the restaurant's 45 employees will be reassigned to nearby branches of the franchise, said the company's senior vice president, Craig Godfrey.
"We will find something for everyone," he said.
Alexi Friedman contributed to this report. Carly Rothman may be reached at crothman@starled ger.com or (908) 302-1504.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.