HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - Mayor Frank Delcore devoted considerable time at Tuesday night’s Township Committee meeting thanking the township’s three fire companies, first aid squads, police and residents for their response to the massive warehouse fire at Veterans Industrial Park that consumed more than 500,000 square feet shared by more than one dozen businesses.
“We are thankful, grateful and appreciative,” the mayor said, noting that the volunteer firefighters and others were “put to the test,” under tough conditions.
“We owe them a debt of gratitude,” Delcore said.
Only two firefighters suffered minor injuries during the Feb. 11-12 fire which spewed plumes of deep black smoke billowing across the skies of central New Jersey. Stiff winds and single-digit temperatures made their task that much more difficult.
Delcore, along with Deputy Mayor Carl Suraci and committee members Gloria McCauley, Doug Tomson and Greg Burchette also circulated a letter of thanks praising the effort to area media:
“Over the last few days, Hillsborough's first responders and our town's spirit were put to the test. It was very hard to come up with the right words to express the appreciation to the fire fighters, our police officers, our EMS crews and township staff who worked so hard in spite of brutal conditions at the recent Somerville Industrial Park fire.
“Over 150 volunteer firefighters left their families at home, their paying jobs and some closed their businesses to meet flames head-on as they leapt into the frigid sky for over 24 hours,” the letter continues. “These men and woman are volunteers, but I would put them up against any paid fire department in the country. They lay their lives on the line to protect and save our community, and for this we are thankful.
“This special group of people have our utmost respect.”
The letter continues:
“We would be remiss if we didn't also acknowledge the overwhelming response from you, the residents of Hillsborough. Everywhere we as elected officials turned, we saw donations pour into sites across Hillsborough to help our first responders and responders from across the State battle the flames. It was humbling and inspiring to see our community pull together and we look forward to honoring our first responders in the near future.”
The letter concludes:
“On behalf of the township committee, we would like to thank everyone who once again showed everyone who was watching why we are one of the Best Places to Live in America!”
Delcore also thanked firefighters from surrounding communities, including Somerville, for their response fighting the fire, which burned for more than 15 hours through the night before it was declared under control.
The mayor also announced that the township is working with the congressional office of Rep. Leonard Lance, R-7th to be reimbursed by the federal government for the cost of equipment damaged or destroyed in the fire. Veterans Industrial Park, located at 152 Route 206 south, is owned by the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Chief Fire Marshal Christopher Weniger said the township’s three fire companies all suffered considerable damage to equipment, primarily 5-inch hoses that were used to pump water from hydrants and tanker trucks.
Weniger said he is coordinating efforts with the township’s fire companies to compile loss estimates and will provide the information to Lance’s office.
Other departments also experienced damage to their equipment.
Several lengths of damaged hoses were left behind, stark reminders of the raging fire that blew shards of burning asphalt and other debris downwind, littering the streets and lawns of nearby residential neighborhoods and office parks. The fire also shut down Route 206 overnight and for days afterwards.
Hundreds of firefighters, 90 fire companies and more than 200 emergency vehicles from 30 towns throughout New Jersey responded to the massive blaze that leveled two World War II-era warehouses, causing $50 million in damages and the loss of hundreds of jobs.
Delcore characterized the blaze as one of the largest to occur in New Jersey.
Federal investigators on Tuesday issued their preliminary findings into the cause of the fire.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives coordinated the onsite investigation.
"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.
An official announcement on the cause of the fire will be made at the conclusion of the peer review process, Belsky said.
"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 ATF.
"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 on Saturday, Feb. 20 after a week of combing through the rubble and interviewing witnesses.
Belsky explained there will be one of four conclusions to be considered: natural causes; incendiary, meaning that the fire was set intentionally; accidential or undetermined.
Belsky said he would “be shocked” if the conclusion reached is incendiary.