HILLSBOROUGH, N.J. — Federal investigators have issued their preliminary findings into the cause of the massive Feb. 11 fire that destroyed two warehouses along Route 206, causing $50 million in losses.
"We have a very good idea of what happened," said ATF Newark Field Division Special Agent in Charge George P. Belsky at Tuesday night's Township Committee meeting.
For now, the cause of the fire is being classified as "undetermined," pending a peer review process that could take as long as 30 days, Belsky explained.
"The ignition source for the fire could not be determined and therefore the fire was classified as undetermined. There was no indication that the fire was caused by an intentional act," said Walter Kudron, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"Based on the scene examination and witness statements, it was determined that the fire originated in the high rack storage area of building 14 in the west side of unit C," he added.
The ATF National Response Team (NRT) completed its fire scene investigation located at Veterans Industrial Park, 152 U.S. Route 206 on Saturday, Feb. 20 after a week of combing through the rubble and interviewing witnesses.
The ATF took over the investigation from local and state officals because the property is owned by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and subleased to a private real estate firm.
The fire took 15 hours to bring under control after it had engulfed the two warehouses which are parallel to a railroad spur that delivered asnd carried out materials for businesses located in the industrial complex.
At one point in the fire, the plume of smoke extended 43 miles east over the Jersey shore and the Atlantic Ocean.
The ATF says approximately 500,000 square feet were destroyed. Several businesses were wiped out, and hundreds of job were lost.
The five-alarm fire was extinguished with the assistance of more than 90 fire companies responding with more than 200 emergency vehicles.
The NRT and ATF Newark, New York and Philadelphia Field Divisions together with investigators from the Hillsborough Township Fire Marshal’s Office, the Hillsborough Township Police Department, the New Jersey State Fire Marshal’s Office, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Office of Inspector General investigated the fire, following up on more than 70 investigative leads and conducting more than 50 interviews.
“Investigating a fire of this size is truly a team effort,” said ATF Newark Field Division Special Agent in Charge George P. Belsky. “We appreciate the dedication of our federal, state and local partners working with us to thoroughly investigate this fire to determine its origin and cause.”
In 1978, ATF developed the NRT to bring its expertise to federal, state and local investigators in meeting the challenges faced at the scenes of significant explosive and fire incidents.
The NRT consists of four geographically organized teams that provide nationwide coverage. Each team can respond within 24 hours to assist ATF, state and local law enforcement.
Each team comprises veteran special agents specially trained in post-blast and fire origin-and-cause expertise, forensic chemists, explosives enforcement officers, fire protection engineers, accelerant detection canines, explosives detection canines, intelligence support, computer forensic support, and audit support.
The teams work alongside local ATF assets, and state and local investigators in reconstructing the scene, identifying the seat of the blast or origin of the fire, conducting interviews, and sifting through debris to obtain evidence related to the explosion and/or fire.