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Federal Agents Sift Through Debris and Rubble Looking for Cause of Hillsborough Warehouse Fire

The fire has just begun to spread across the warehouse roof. Credits: Rod Hirsch
Royal Cabinet suffered extensive water damage and the loss of its compressor room but owner Paul McDonald expects to resume operations.
Royal Cabinet owner Paul McDonald looks away as the fire continues to spread across the rooftop adjacent to his business, at right. Credits: Rod Hirsch

HILLSBOROUGH, NJ – Investigators from the federal Division of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives continued their investigation into the cause of the massive fire that consumed 300,000 square feet at two warehouses in Veterans Industrial Park last week.

Huge plumes of black, acrid smoke billowed across the skies of central New Jersey, littering nearby neighborhoods and businesses with ash and shards of asphalt roofing material. At one point, weather radar tracked the plume past the Jersey shore and into the Atlantic Ocean, a distance of 43 miles.

The fire, which began about 3 p.m. Thursday, burned out of control through the night and into Friday before it was declared contained more than 15 hours later. Mop-up operations continued through the weekend.

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More than one dozen businesses and hundreds of employees were impacted by the devastating blaze.

Left behind is a charred landscape of blackened timbers, thousands of concrete blocks scattered in haphazard patterns, downed wires, scorched trailer trucks, burned-out forklifts and other industrial equipment left unrecognizable by the intense heat.

The property and buildings are owned by the federal government. The warehouses and other structures on the property date to World War II and were built with wooden timbers and concrete blocks. There was very little steel incorporated into the buildings.

A light snow blanketed the rubble yesterday afternoon, with ice and rain expected into the night.

Generators as big as jet engines and other heavy-duty equipment were trundled in to the complex on flat bed tow trucks while other trucks continued to spread salt on the roadways inside the complex which stretches for one mile along Route 206 south. Power to the complex was cut off by PSE&G.

ATF agents from the US Department of Justice interviewed owners of businesses within the complex through the weekend and scoured the rubble trying to pinpoint the cause of the fire.

Paul McDonald, president and owner of Royal Cabinet, is one of the lucky ones.

His woodworking business was on the other side of the firewall where the fire started. The 40,000 square foot space suffered only minor damage, according to McDonald. The stiff wind blew the flames away from unit in the in the building.

“There’s water all over the place, one-half to one inches, our compressor room suffered some damage and a CNC machine (a numeric drilling and routing machine programmed by computer) is probably damaged,” McDonald said. “Until we get the power back on we won’t know if it will run again.

“The other equipment is pretty much untouched, the finishing room, our offices are all in good shape,” he added.

The fire did destroy a portion of the roof over the compressor room, measuring about ten feet square, according to McDonald.

He credits firefighters for saving his business.

“They were at the back side of the building; they were worried about the tankers on the railroad tracks; they hosed down the back deck and sent guys inside the building with a hose,” he said.

Firefighters trained the hose on the inside of the roof to keep it as cooled down as possible, hoping to stave off the flames from spreading across the parapet that separated the two units, according to McDonald.

A document storage company was in the same building as Royal Cabinet. A moving and storage company was also in the first building to catch fire, as well as Midstate Packaging, which has the biggest presence in the complex. It stores and ships plastic pellets, the raw material used in extrusion and molding of plastic bottles and other plastic products.

Operation New Hope, a manufacturing and materials handling company operated by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, was also decimated in the blaze. It was in the second building to ignite after the flames jumped the railroad tracks in between the two buildings.

A strong wind close to 30 mph quickly spread the flames across the flat roofs of both warehouses, fed by the asphalt and tar roofing material.

McDonald said he was interviewed by the ATF and a Hillsborough police detective on Saturday.

“They wanted to interview anybody who was close to that scene; they asked the normal questions, ‘who has access to the building, did you recently change your insurance,’ the standard check-the-box type of questions,” McDonald said.

Anxious to know when he could begin putting the pieces back together, McDonald said he was told it could be anywhere between two and ten days.

“They did say they were not leaving until they find the cause of the fire,” McDonald said, “but how can you tell what happened inside those buildings? That’s got to be difficult.”

McDonald and other business owners throughout the complex were contacted by insurers, adjusters and others looking to help.

“I got e-mails from brokers that night and insurance adjusters the next day,” McDonald said. “Fortunately, I’ve got good insurance, it’s not like this is the end of the world, it’s just going to be a pain getting things back up and running again,” he added.

Customized Distribution Systems of Wharton sent an e-mail shortly after 11 a.m. on Friday as the complex continued to spew smoke from the rubble.

“The management team of Customized Distribution Services, Inc., a national provider of third-party warehousing and logistics solutions . . . was deeply moved by the losses suffered in the industrial park fire in Hillsborough, NJ last night and recognizes that a number of companies and employees may be impacted by these tragic events. The company remains willing and able to provide whatever assistance may be necessary during this time of need.”

In addition to interim warehousing, CDS offered its job listing service to employees in the complex left without a job.

Hillsborough resident Andy Leopardo, owner and operator of Leopard Towing and Heavy Hauling, also made a round of phone calls Monday to businesses in the complex, offering to provide any trucking needs or storage trailers.

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