JERSEY CITY, NJ - With windows broken, building debris scattered in the bushes, the inside first floor incinerated, and the banister leading upstairs splintered, local fire officials, along with representatives from the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office and the Office of Emergency Management, made their way into the dark interior of the Martin Luther King Drive home carrying flashlights, shovels, and other instruments to sort through the remains left after the previous night’s fire.

Investigators probed the dark interior looking for clues, attempting to determine the cause of the tragedy that claimed the lives of two children.

The middle building in a row of townhouse-like structures is part of a federal housing project that extends for several blocks north of the fire site, its construction, including a wall barrier from basement to the roof that prevents the fire from moving to adjacent residences, kept the tragedy from being worse, Jersey City Fire Chief Steven McGill theorized.

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Snow still piled up outside from the previous week’s massive storm, and several since, had no bearing on firefighter’s response, he said, as fire officials previously cleaned the area around hydrants so that they had access to water.

When the fire started on the first floor of the row house, officials reported, the mother of three who lived there stepped out the front door only to have it close and lock behind her. Two of her children were trapped inside, an 8-month-old boy in the back bedroom on the second floor, and an 11-year-old girl.

The older sibling, according to McGill, apparently went upstairs to save her brother.

Learning of the trapped children, police officers, who were already nearby, managed to get the front door open, greeted by raging flames that were working their way up the stairwell towards the second floor.

The heat – which McGill said could have been as intense of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, made it impossible for the officers to go inside.

The Jersey City Fire Department arrived at approximately 11:40 p.m. or about 4 minutes after they received the call, and managed to advance into the fiery caldron, putting out the flames within a short time. But when they got to the second floor, they found the girl’s body in the hall, near the bedroom door in which the infant lay. The girl likely died from smoke and heat as the fire had not reached her.

Firefighters then found the infant in the bedroom and desperately tried to revive him, with EMTs taking over when they arrived moments later, eventually transporting him to Jersey City Medical Center where he, too, was pronounced dead a short time later.

While residents living in the adjoining buildings were evacuated due largely to the smoke and heat, they were allowed back in their homes to retrieve clothing for temporary shelter and will be allowed to return to their homes.

Rev Jannica V Johnson, who lives in an apartment street a block away, was on the scene in the morning to put a candle in front of the house. She said the family had relocated to the building recently, moving from a nearby apartment because they wanted more space, information confirmed by another neighbor who said he heard the sirens but didn’t realize where it was until he looked outside. 

The fire was recorded by some of the city’s crime detection cameras, and the footage will be part of the investigation as to how it started, although McGill said he does not believe there was arson involved.

“We’ll let the investigation determine that,” he said.

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