A stubborn fire tore through a five-story co-op building in Fort Lee, New Jersey, for hours Thursday, destroying nearly 50 apartments and displacing dozens more families, officials said.
Smoke from the raging inferno at 3011 Edwin Ave. could be seen for miles into the nighttime, including on the George Washington Bridge. Mayor Mark Sokolich said the fire started in the basement of the old brick building, though it's not clear how. It quickly spread upwards, with flames shooting out of windows and heavy smoke billowing from the roof.
There was a partial floor collapse on the first floor of the building inside the Linwood Park complex, Sokolich said. As the blaze grew, firefighters did their best to control it, and were especially concerned about the cockloft connecting the burning building to a second building.
Chopper 4 over the scene captured firefighters making rescues, escorting people from upper floors down on fire escapes.
By late Thursday night, 48 apartments were considered a total loss, and 48 apartments next door had been evacuated, Sokolich said. Three volunteer firefighters had minor injuries.
An emergency demolition has been ordered for the building at 3011 Edwin Ave. on Saturday. It's expected to start at 2 p.m. and take at least 10 hours. The building next door should be habitable sometime next week, officials said, and residents will be allowed to return then.
Shaken residents said they ran from the building after they smelled smoke. One woman cried as she recounted her neighbor knocking on her door and urging her to get out.
"I smelled it in my apartment," she said.
Cindy Cweibel, who's lived in the building next door for about 20 years, said she called 911 when she smelled smoke. Though she made it out, her belongings are inside, and her fear was the fire will jump into her building.
"I came out and didn't expect this, but it was nothing like this at 4 o'clock," she said late Thursday night, assessing the inevitable ruins of the burning building. "Now everything is gone, and I'm hoping and praying it doesn't go into [my building.]"
Emergency management was on the scene, and a shelter was set up at a nearby community center for displaced residents to spend the night, Sokolich said.
Despite the intensity of the fire, residents were grateful to have made it out safely.
"It's a shock," said resident Manuel Barrantes. "We are alive, so we can rebuild. I don't think it's the end. Maybe it's the start of something new."
Sokolich said there have been fires in the past at the Linwood Park complex, which includes 30 buildings and over 1,100 apartments. Representatives from the complex said the investigation is ongoing and everyone is safe.
"This is a very well-run complex," said Sokolich. "I'm told there's ample insurance not only to rebuild but to assist these families with alternative means of living."
The Red Cross said it had a shelter at Fort Lee High School for displaced residents, and good Samaritans were continuing to help by cooking or donating food, and dropping off toiletries, clothing and sundries. A fundraising page for the victims has also been set up.