SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – On the evening of May 26, John Reed and his wife, Kristie, were working in their backyard when Kristie looked up and noticed what appeared to be clouds of smoke over the front of their Geary Drive home.
“The smoke was so black and thick that originally I thought there was a car fire somewhere on Geary,” said John Reed, noting that when he went out the front door of his home he immediately could see a glow.
Reed, a former captain with the South Plainfield Fire Department and current lieutenant with the Plainfield Fire Department, immediately sprung into action. Grabbing his keys and jumping in his car, Reed arrived at the 100 block of Florence Place to find flames and smoke coming out of all side of the residential dwelling.
As he approached the house, Reed said he heard a propane tank venting pressure, which happens when a tank is exposed to fire. He also recalls that there was a big commotion as neighbors were yelling that people were still inside. Reed saw South Plainfield firefighter Mike Pellegrino at the front window where Donna Verdutis, one of the home’s residents, was banging on a front basement window. Reed and Pellegrino along with fellow South Plainfield firefighter Joe Abbruzzesse, South Plainfield Police Officer Brian Zielinski and an unknown New Market firefighter were able to break the glass.
Donna informed them that her 83-year-old father Robert was also still in the home, pointing to the opposite side of the house. As Abbruzzese and Pelligrino worked to pull Donna out of the house, Reed and Officer Zielinski headed out the right hand side of the home and started banging on windows and yelling for Robert to call out. Although Reed was eventually able to break the glass on a back window, heavy smoke and flames prevented him from entering the home.
“I had no gear. I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt,” Reed said.
Reed came back around to the front of the home and, at that point, Donna was almost out of the window. He began to assist while monitoring the smoke conditions, which were changing from the window located on the first floor directly above. “I remember telling everyone stay low, that there was going to be fire above our heads. No sooner than I said it, the fire vented out of the window just as Donna was pulled to safety,” Reed said.
A firefighter with 24 years of experience, Reed said he didn't give rushing to help a second thought. “I just wanted to help,” he said, adding that he just did what any trained firefighter would do when faced with the same situation.
“It’s just a natural thing, to act and to do something just as it would be for anyone in firefighting. When you get into these situations, your trained to just react.”
According to South Plainfield Fire Chief Tom Scalera, arriving units found the two-story home fully engulfed in flames. “The crew made a heroic push to get inside the front door to reach the victim on the first floor but the fast moving fire pushed them back,” said Scalera, noting that Robert Vedutis was found on the first floor of the dwelling, in the hall between his bedroom and the kitchen.
Thirty 30 firefighters responded to the scene, including volunteers from the South Plainfield, Plainfield, and New Market departments while the Colonia, Metuchen and North Stelton departments stood standby at borough headquarters. Four firefighters suffered minor injuries. Donna was transported to Robert Wood University Hospital and released on May 27.
The entire Florence Place home, particularly in the back, was devastated. Neighboring homes had their vinyl siding melted from heat of the blaze. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. TAPinto South Plainfield will provide updates as they become available.