Camden Fire Department
The Fires of June & July, 2011
June 11, 2011 - The Howland Croft Fire


After budget cuts brought on in great part by poor leadership at the state level from both political parties under Governors Whitman, McGreevey, Codey, and Corzine the City of Camden laid of a large number of its professional fire department at the end of 2010. Former Chief David A. Yates had offered three plans on how to cope with the situation, all were rejected by parties at Camden's City Hall, and a plan for the Fire Department, which to date I have not been able to find out who authored, was handed back to the Chief. Chief Yates subsequently chose to retire, and Chief Michael Harper was appointed as his replacement. Chief Harper inherited a no-win situation, and the losses began almost immediately. With Fire companies closed in different parts of the city, response times to fire calls increased, homes that could have been saved were destroyed, and civilians injured. 

On June 6, 2011 a vacant two-story twin at 821-823 of Chestnut Street was destroyed by fire. Three days later, on June 9, fire broke out in the abandoned warehouse on Chestnut Street that formerly housed the Reliable Tire Company. When the few available local units arrived on the scene, hydrants were found to have been vandalized, delaying efforts to extinguish the blaze, which soon went to 12 alarms. Units were called in from surrounding communities, obviously taking a great deal of time to arrive on scene. In the mean time, high winds caused the fire to spread to adjacent buildings that formerly were occupied by the Camden Pottery Company, and homes on Orchard, Louis, and Mount Vernon Streets. Ten occupied homes were completely destroyed, as were all the industrial buildings, and thirteen other homes on Chestnut Street were badly damaged by smoke and water. Conditions and results of this blaze mimicked in almost every way the Poet's Row fire of August, 1972 where a vacant leather factory once occupied by the John R. Evans & Company caught fire and two and one-half full city blocks of homes on Byron, Burns, and Milton Streets were completely and utterly destroyed.... a deadly combination of an old and abandoned industrial building, short-staffed fire department, low water pressure and high winds being among the contributing factors.

In the early morning hours of June 11, 2011 another abandoned industrial building was reported to be on fire. The former Howland Croft, Sons & Company mill on Broadway between Winslow and Jefferson Streets was devastated by a blaze that went to eight alarms.  One house at the corner of South 4th and Winslow and three homes on Winslow Street were damaged by smoke and water, but fortunately, none were destroyed.

Late in August of 2011, the Camden Police Department put out a "Be On The Look Out" for two fugitives who had been squatting in vacant buildings in South Camden for several months in connection with the Howland Croft fire.. The sad part is that both of these persons were wanted and had outstanding warrants for their arrest prior to the Howland Croft fire, and by rights should have been picked up and incarcerated long before the fire was set. Once again, expediency and the unwillingness to deal with the criminal population, using the excuse "the homeless are the victims" resulted in innocent and law-abiding families being forced from their homes. A government that willingly refuses to protect its citizens has become a de facto accomplice in crimes against them.    

As with the web page covering other Camden Fire Department events, if you can identify anyone that I've missed, please e-mail me. (I'm terrible at at names and faces).

Phil Cohen
July 3, 2011

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Camden Courier-Post * June 11, 2011
Fire destroys another Camden warehouse

CAMDEN  An eight-alarm fire engulfed a three-story warehouse in Camden overnight.

The blaze at an abandoned factory on Winslow Street near Broadway in South Camden broke out shortly before 2:30 a.m. and raged out of control for three hours.

It was the second major fire in the city in two days. On Thursday, a 12-alarm inferno leveled an abandoned tire business and most of the two surrounding city blocks.

Read Sunday's Courier-Post for more details on both blazes.

The Howland Croft, Sons & Company mill

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Destroyed by Fire on June 11, 2011

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David Hernandez

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Philadelphia Inquirer - June 11, 2011

Residents return after fire; Camden cleans up
By Kristen A. Graham
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Officials are not yet saying if arson was the cause of a second major Camden fire in as many days that tore through an old commercial building in this morning.

Firefighters were still dousing "hot spots" before noon. A Camden County official said the city fire department was dispatched at 2:26 a.m. to fight a blaze on the 400 block of Winslow Street at the Howland Croft building, which took up most of the street. The fire was brought under control at 6 a.m., officials said.

However, the fire grew to eight alarms at the old garment factory, which officials said had been used only for storage for a number of years. Up to 30 residents were temporarily displaced and about 20 fire companies responded.

All residents were evacuated safely, Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper said. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries - one, a sprained foot and another, heat exhaustion - and were treated at local hospitals.

Harper said the firefighters were able to cut the fire off before it did much damage to the rowhomes across the street from the factory. All of the homes were saved, he said.

It was the second major fire in an old building in as many days.

On Thursday, in another section of the city, a fire broke out in a vacant building rented by the Reliable Tire Co. between 1964 and 1999. Mayor Dana L. Redd said city officials were setting up a relief fund for those affected. At least 65 people were unable to return home, city officials said.

Twenty-three buildings burned in that blaze, which started about 4:30 p.m. Thursday and was declared under control shortly after 9 p.m. Four firefighters and one civilian were treated for smoke inhalation.

By Saturday afternoon, emergency vehicles still lined Broadway in the Waterfront South section of Camden, where neighbors gathered on the sidewalks to watch emergency personnel attend to the fire's aftermath.

Brothers Pedro and Juan Vega looked tired after being up most of the night. The two live in their family's home on Winslow Street across from the factory.

They said their house sustained only minimal damage.

"Barely anything was hurt," said Juan Vega, 26. "Just some windows broken, a little water damage."

The family was awoken shortly after 2 by "crackling - it was very loud," said Pedro Vega, 28. "The heat was unbearable - we couldn't get out through the front."

They escaped through the back door.

Officials allowed residents back into their homes at about 10 a.m.

The Vega brothers said that while no one works in the building, it's not often empty.

"Homeless people sleep there, and people take things from there - copper, whatever they can find," Juan Vega said.

Sitting on a chair in front of their home on Broadway, sisters-in-law Stephanie Culbreath and Terri Davis praised the work of the firefighters, but said they were anxious for their electricity to be turned back on. Officials cut the power to a swath of the neighborhood at about 4 a.m., they said.

More worrisome, they said, was the second fire in just a few days.

"I do think maybe it was set," Culbreath said. "It does seem they're targeting these old vacant warehouses. It's been vacant for years, and there was never a fire. It makes you wonder."

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Philadelphia Inquirer * June 11, 2011
Another Major Camden Fire

A second major fire raged in as many days as a blaze tore through an old commercial building in Camden this morning.

A Camden County fire official said the city fire department was dispatched at 2:26 a.m. to fight a blaze on the 400 block of Winslow Street at the Howland Croft building, which took up most of the street.  There were no reported injuries by 6 a.m. when the fire was deemed under control.

However, the fire grew to 8 alarms at what was reported to be an old textile factory.  Further details were not available.  Up to 30 residents had been displaced and about 20 fire companies responded.

It was the second major fire in an old building in as many days.

On Thursday, a fire broke out in a vacant building, which was rented by the Reliable Tire Co. between 1964 and 1999.   Mayor Dana L. Redd said city officials were setting up a relief fund for those affected. At least 65 people were unable to return home, city officials said.

Twenty-three buildings burned in that blaze, which started about 4:30 p.m. Thursday and was declared under control shortly after 9 p.m. Four firefighters and one civilian were treated for smoke inhalation. .


Channel 6 Action News * June 12, 2011
Another Massive Fire in Camden
by Amy Buckman

CAMDEN, NJ - June 11, 2011 (WPVI) -- Camden Fire officials are investigating the second multi-alarm fire in Camden in three days.

The 8-alarm fire destroyed a warehouse in Camden, just a mile away from another devastating blaze.

Officials are questioning the possibility of links between the two fires and the suspicious nature of both.

Some of the same firefighters who fought Thursday's vacant warehouse fire in Camden were back on the front lines again Saturday morning fighting an 8-alarm blaze in the 400 block of Winslow Court.

"It is pretty unusual for us to have fires of this magnitude within a couple of days of each other," said Chief Michael Harper.

The fire broke out shortly after 2:00am in the Howland Croft building, a 132-year-old former textile factory that was being used to store computer components and building supplies.

Those items and the structure's timber beam construction made the blaze fierce and spectacular, igniting metal street signs and power lines.

Firefighters found flames shooting from a 4 story vacant building, that occupies an entire city block.

The fire spread very quickly and firefighters struck additional alarms.

Fire crews drafted water from the Delaware River to assist firefighters at the scene.

Camden City Firefighters also called in a fireboat from the Philadelphia Fire Department to assist in fighting the fire.

Around 3:25am, the fire went to a 5th and 6th and 8th alarm bringing numerous fire companies from Camden and Gloucester county to the scene.

Several nearby homes were evacuated and power was shut off to the neighborhood.

Though firefighters did manage to contain the fire to the warehouse and bring it under control before 6:00am, it was an anxious morning for residents.

"Somebody was banging on the door, and when my grandma opened the door there were flames, and she couldn't see, she couldn't breathe. We just grabbed my daughter and my grandma and got out through the alley," explained Des Torres.

"I came out of the store and it was just a little window on fire. Next thing we know, the whole side of the building lit up. It just started really fast. The poles across the street caught on fire near the houses. It was terrible," said Theresa Alicea.

With the morning fire coming so close on the heels of the fire earlier in the week in Camden, many people are wondering out loud whether there is an arsonist on the loose.

"This is ridiculous back to back," said Michalae Dios. "It's not making any sense. I don't even know for sure if I have a home right now."

"It is a concern of our too," said Chief Harper. "Our fire marshal is going to do an investigation on it in coordination with the county fire marshal's office, the Camden Police Department, and they are going to try and get to the bottom of it."

The Red Cross will be helping residents who have been displaced by the fire.

Firefighters were able to bring the fire under control shortly before 6 this morning.

.


Camden Courier-Post * June 12, 2011
2nd Inferno Ravages City
by Lucas K. Murray & Joe Cooney

CAMDEN  Just as the Camden Fire Department was catching its collective breath from a massive blaze Thursday, crews responded to a second inferno early Saturday morning.

Fire Chief Michael Harper said the department was dispatched at 2:26 a.m. to the rear of the old Howland Croft, Sons & Co. building at 4th and Winslow streets. The fire grew to eight alarms before it was brought under control around 6 a.m.

No injuries were reported.

Retired Cherry Hill Fire Capt. Larry Colacicco was manning a rehab station on Broadway a couple blocks north of the fire scene around noon on Saturday. The former member of the Fire Marshal's Office said it was unusual to have two large fires so close together.

"Two huge vacant building fires in three days seems a little weird to me," Colacicco said. "(If I were still working) I'd be in that building right now looking around for clues."

"The three-story building that was at the corner of 4th and Winslow had a cattle chute that connected to another section," Harper reported. "When crews arrived it was localized back there, and they tried to cut it off."

Harper explained that firefighters immediately began to attack the fire, but told him it was the "fastest-moving fire they'd ever seen."

"When they looked up, the fire was already out to Broadway."

The 130-year-old building that housed Croft's Linden Worsted Mills manufactured yarn and other textiles up until about 1950. A block long and a block wide, the L-shaped building is similar to the one that went up in flames Thursday about a mile away in the city's Gateway section.

The 12-alarm fire at an abandoned tire warehouse required 59 other departments from three counties. Saturday's fire brought in 20 companies.

Harper said the issues that faced firefighters Thursday -- heat and broken fire hydrants -- weren't significant Saturday.

"This is the best place to have a fire," he explained. "We have plenty of water on Broadway, there's a large water main on 4th street in the back. But because we had to use so many aerial streams, we had to special call the Philadelphia Fire Department's fireboat."


Philadelphia Inquirer * June 12, 2011
2nd Fire In Camden Destroys Warehouse

By Kristen A. Graham

Inquirer Staff Writer

A fast-moving fire destroyed a vacant South Camden warehouse Saturday, injuring two firefighters but mostly sparing the adjacent block of rowhouses.

The eight-alarm fire was the second major Camden blaze in three days. Officials did not know the cause of either.

Saturday's fire erupted shortly before 2:30 a.m. at the Howland Croft building, a three-story former garment factory in the 400 block of Winslow Street, just off Broadway.

The building had been used to store building materials and computer monitors, Fire Chief Michael Harper said. It's in the Waterfront South section of the city, home to blocks of rowhouses and industrial sites including Camden County's sewage-treatment facility.

Firefighters reported the blaze was "one of the fastest-moving fires they'd seen," Harper said, but they cut it off before it did much damage to the homes on Winslow.

"They had to physically go in and extinguish those fires to save the homes, but they did," Harper said.

Companies from around the region fought the blaze, which was under control by 6 a.m.

Two Camden firefighters were treated at hospitals, Harper said - one for a sprained foot and the other for heat exhaustion.

About 30 residents were displaced, but most returned to their homes by 10 a.m.

Damage to two homes on the block was serious enough to keep occupants out for the night, said Camy Trinidad, executive director of the Camden County chapter of the American Red Cross.

One family stayed with relatives, and another was housed temporarily by the Red Cross, which was also coping with the fallout from Thursday's 12-alarm fire, which began in a vacant building formerly rented by the Reliable Tire Co. and which virtually leveled two blocks.

That blaze displaced dozens, Trinidad said, many still housed in a motel by the Red Cross, which was working with city officials to find permanent housing for them by Monday.

"It was," Trinidad said, "a tough couple of days."

Union officials had said the widespread damage from Thursday's fire was exacerbated by recent layoffs of Camden fire personnel.

Harper has rejected the argument that layoffs played a role in Thursday's response time.

The fire chief also said vandalized hydrants - a problem Thursday - were not a factor in Saturday's blaze.

On Saturday afternoon, neighbors gathered on Broadway and side streets, watching crews extinguish hot spots and cope with the aftermath of the fire.

Brothers Pedro and Juan Vega looked tired after being up most of the night. The two live in their family home on Winslow Street across from the factory.

"Barely anything was hurt" in their house, said Juan Vega, 26. "Just some windows broken, a little water damage."

The family was awakened shortly after 2 a.m. by "crackling. It was very loud," said Pedro Vega, 28. "The heat was unbearable. We couldn't get out through the front."

The brothers and their family escaped through the back door.

The Vegas said that while no one had worked in the Howland Croft building, it hadn't always been empty.

"Homeless people sleep there, and people take things from there - copper, whatever they can find," Juan Vega said.

Sitting on a chair in front of their home on Broadway, sisters-in-law Stephanie Culbreath and Terri Davis praised the work of the firefighters, but said they were eager for their electricity to be turned back on. Officials cut the power to a swath of the neighborhood about 4 a.m., they said.

More worrisome, they said, was the second fire in just a few days.

"I do think maybe it was set," Culbreath said. "It does seem they're targeting these old vacant warehouses. It's been vacant for years, and there was never a fire. It makes you wonder."

Another neighbor, who declined to give his name, agreed.

"Two in a couple days? It just doesn't sound right," the neighbor said. . .


Camden Courier-Post * June 12, 2011
Union: More Staff Could Have Helped Contain Fire
by George Mast

CAMDEN  Even as tri-county firefighters worked furiously to contain a roaring inferno at a South Camden warehouse Thursday, conversations among residents and fire union leaders turned to earlier cutbacks at the city's fire department.

The 12-alarm blaze swept across several city blocks, destroying about a dozen homes in its path.

On Friday, Al Ashley, president of the Camden firefighter's superior officer's union, again sounded the union's cry to bolster resources at the department, claiming a larger response from the city early on would have quelled the hellish blaze before it spread to neighboring homes.

"Fund the fire department," Ashley said in a statement aimed at city officials.

At two press conferences Friday, Camden Mayor Dana Redd avoided questions on whether layoffs had hindered the city's ability to control the fire.

Fire Chief Michael Harper was left to take on the issue. While admitting layoffs are always a blow, he said the magnitude of the fire was more than city firefighters could have handled even at the highest staffing levels.

"It exceeded the capabilities of anything the Camden Fire Department has ever staffed, so it didn't make a difference because we needed to have additional manpower to address the problems," Harper said of the fire.

The city laid off 67 firefighters in January amid sweeping cuts after negotiations with fire and police unions stalled. The city has since rehired 33 firefighters thanks to a federal grant.

Harper said the largest issue firefighters faced when they responded to the blaze at the abandoned tire warehouse at Chestnut and Orchard streets was water access.

"Our biggest concern here is that we had limitations due to the faulty hydrants that are in some of the neighborhoods," he explained.

Harper said metal scavengers target a brass fitting on the hydrants. Without the fitting, firefighters can't hook hoses up to the hydrant and are forced to pump water from farther away.

Firefighters were delayed in putting water on parts of the blaze Thursday, as they had to bypass three such hydrants on Mount Vernon Street near the warehouse as well as another on Louis Street that was a mere 50 yards from where four homes burned to the ground.

Instead hoses had to be strung to hydrants farther away. Six fire companies were used to stretch hoses the entire distance to Cooper River.

"It's a never-ending battle for us," Harper said of inoperable hydrants.

City attorney Marc Riondino said Camden's 3,000 fire hydrants are maintained by United Water. Harper said the city is working with the water company to address the problem. He added United Water has agreed to provide a weekly list of inoperable hydrants.

United Water officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment late Friday afternoon.

Ashley, the fire union president, agreed faulty hydrants were partly to blame for the fire's spread Thursday, but maintained a larger immediate response would also have helped.

With the rehires, Ashley said the department is able to staff seven fire companies, four less than this time a year ago. With four additional companies from the onset, Ashley said firefighters would have had a better chance of containing the 3:30 p.m. blaze to the warehouse and prevented its eventual spread to homes along Louis, Orchard and Mount Vernon streets.

"Those extra four being here in a matter of minutes . . . that makes a big difference. Time is a big factor."

Residents watching the blaze Thursday and those who surveyed the aftermath Friday also questioned what would have happened had the cuts never occurred.

As flames leapt from the top of the warehouse Thursday and began arching over the roofs of neighboring rowhomes on Chestnut Street, one resident pleaded for firefighters to turn their attention to his home. Firefighters bluntly told the man they were understaffed since the layoffs and had no more resources available.

A crew from Collingswood soon arrived and began dousing the houses with water.

On Friday, Chestnut Street resident Aaron Jefferson surveyed a friend's home that had been reduced to rubble on Louis Street.

"They should have cut something else but not the fire department," said Jefferson.

"It doesn't make sense.""


Camden Courier-Post * June 12, 2011
Hydrant vandalism endangers public
by Jim Walsh

When firefighters arrived at a burning building Thursday, they quickly learned someone had been there before them.

A thief had stripped brass fittings from at least four hydrants near a former tire warehouse in the city's Gateway section, making them inoperable.

And as firefighters searched for working hydrants, the blaze grew and grew. Helped along by strong winds, the flames ultimately became a 12-alarm inferno that consumed several city blocks and left more than 50 people homeless.

The vandalized hydrants were "one of the biggest critical things" in allowing the monster fire to grow, Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper said.

The threat to fire safety isn't limited to Camden. Metal thieves, or scrappers, also are active in suburban communities, where fire officials see a potential risk to both personal safety and property.

"This is definitely a concern for fire departments in the region," said Fire Chief Robert Giorgio in Cherry Hill, where a metal thief targeted a fire-suppression system on an office building earlier this year.

In Camden, Harper said thieves in the Gateway area had removed the brass fittings needed to connect the hydrants to firefighters' hoses. At a press conference Friday, he said scrappers elsewhere in the city have targeted commercial buildings, taking parts from sprinkler systems and standpipes, which hold water for firefighting purposes.

The vandalism "hurts our effectiveness at getting adequate water on the fire at a proper time," said Harper. "If we can't get water on the fire, we can't extinguish the fire. We can't contain the fire."

Any delay in attacking a fire can have life-or-death consequences for people trapped in a burning building, and can increase the extent of structural damage, officials said.

"The longer it takes to respond to a fire, the more it can build in intensity," noted Giorgio.

In the Cherry Hill incident, someone took parts from an exterior standpipe that would normally supply water to the sprinklers in a Haddonfield Road office building. The theft was noticed under routine circumstances, and the standpipe was repaired.

If a fire had broken out while the standpipe was broken, firefighters would have had to enter the burning building to reach an interior standpipe, Giorgio said.

Other chiefs say they haven't seen the problem in their towns, but they're aware of the threat.

"Obviously this issue is of great concern," said Chief Joseph A. Riggs Jr. at Haddon Fire Co. No. 1 in Haddonfield. "This not only causes additional property losses, it also jeopardizes the lives of firefighters."

And while Camden officials say they're now planning to improve tracking of the city's 3,000 hydrants, the federal Department of Homeland Security warned three years ago of a national "epidemic" of hydrant vandalism.

The theft of scrap metal from hydrants "continues to degrade critical infrastructure resources," the federal agency said.

Officials said the Camden incident shows the need for people to report suspicious activity around hydrants. But public awareness is also a "double-edged sword because now more thieves will see this as an opportunity," Giorgio noted.

He predicted law enforcement "eventually will get a handle on this. I think they'll identify the people who are doing this."

Indeed, two days before the Gateway fire, authorities in Camden targeted another public-safety hazard from scrap-metal thefts.

The Camden County Prosecutor's Office on Tuesday arrested two men at a city scrap yard, alleging they had paid undercover investigators for wire "clearly labeled as PSE&G property."

Officials said thieves are cutting wires from street lights throughout the city, creating a persistent darkness that encourages illegal activity.

"For the past year, one of our investigators has been working specifically on this crime," prosecutor's spokesman Jason Laughlin said Friday, referring to thefts from electric utilities. "After seeing the trend, we wanted to see what kind of response we'd get at some of the scrap yards. On the first try, we got these two guys."

Scrappers also have victimized PATCO, stealing wire along the transit line, officials said.

Some metal thefts likely offend the public more than they endanger it.

Cinnaminson authorities last week charged three South Jersey women who allegedly stole hundreds of military gravemarkers from several South Jersey cemeteries. They were arrested after trying to sell the markers at a Philadelphia scrap yard.

A sharp rise in value for scrap metal is fueling the crime wave.

Commodity prices for copper have more than doubled in the past two years, according to the Coalition Against Copper Theft. It cites a "conservative" estimate by the federal Department of Energy that copper thefts cost the nation almost $1 billion per year.

Locally, copper can bring up to $3.50 a pound at scrap yards, the prosecutor's office said in announcing the arrests at Fannelle's Sons, a facility in the city's Waterfront South area.

The extent of thefts makes it difficult to track the damage caused by vandals, officials said.

In Cherry Hill, for instance, firefighters annually inspect the township's hydrants, but building owners are responsible for checking standpipes, said Giorgio.

"There may be (other standpipe thefts) that we still don't know about," he said.

"A lot of things have to come together when you're responding to a fire," Giorgio observed. "When one thing goes wrong, it can have a big impact."


Camden Courier-Post * June 14, 2011

Redd orders agencies to probe two massive Camden fires

by Lucas K. Murray

CAMDEN  In the wake of two of Camden's largest fires in recent memory, Mayor Dana Redd called upon various agencies to assist the investigation.

"I want to make sure we're following all protocols to ensure the safety of our citizens," Redd insisted at a press conference Monday.

"We're working with our county partners, working with our local and federal partners and we want to make sure a full-scale investigation is completed."

Causes of the two fires -- one Thursday afternoon, the other early Saturday morning -- have yet to be determined and could take weeks as investigators search through tons of rubble.

Described by Fire Chief Michael Harper as a "firestorm," Thursday's 12-alarm blaze leveled the better part of two city blocks in the city's Gateway section. A former tire warehouse on Chestnut Street burned first. The fire then spread to adjacent homes, displacing 16 families.

Within 36 hours early Saturday, an eight-alarm blaze at the Howland Croft, Sons & Co. on Broadway in the city's Waterfront South destroyed a 130-year-old former textile factory and sent flames shooting into the early-morning sky. Two city firefighters were injured at the scene.

Redd would not comment on whether she sees the cause of either fire as suspicious, but she did express concern that they happened in such a short time frame.

Fifty-nine South Jersey fire departments -- including some from Burlington and Gloucester counties -- responded to the 12-alarmer Thursday. At one point, crews pumped water from the Cooper River after firefighters found hydrants had been stripped of brass fittings by thieves, rendering them useless.

Police Chief J. Scott Thomson said that three weeks earlier, individuals were arrested trying to strip metal beams from the building.

Along Louis Street on Thursday, firefighters were met with inoperable hydrants. By Monday the hydrants had shiny new brass fittings.

City Attorney Mark Riondino said Bergen County-based United Water is responsible for the maintenance of the hydrants.

"The Department of Public Works is dealing with United Water on a daily basis and have a plan to replace hydrants that are inoperable or vandalized," Riondino said.

United Water representative Jane LeCapitaine acknowledged that under an agreement with the city, the responsibility for hydrant maintenance rests with the company.

"These were not previously reported as being in need of repair," LeCapitaine said, noting a twice-yearly flushing and maintenance program concluded May 16 in Camden.

"They were not reported as a result of inspection as missing anything. They were operable."

Issues in getting water to Saturday morning's fire were minimal, Harper said. Hydrants were largely intact, but with the magnitude of fighting a raging fire in a building a block long and a block wide -- in addition to protecting nearby homes -- a Philadelphia Fire Department boat was brought in to pump water from the Delaware River to ladder trucks.

After Saturday's fire, residents along nearby Winslow Street said the former factory was frequented by squatters and people engaging in illegal activity, raising concern there may be unaccounted victims who perished in the rubble of the four-story factory.

"We always have a concern like that and we do everything we can to ensure there is not an issue," Harper said of recovery efforts.

"As you start unearthing things, you never know what you'll find."

As was the case in the Gateway fire, fire companies from outside the city responded to Saturday's fire. Redd said she wanted to dispel misinformation that neighboring towns were put at significant risk by lending help.

"The County of Camden has a dedicated mutual aid coordinator who facilitates mutual aid responses throughout the county and makes a determination in such a way to ensure adequate coverage for all communities," Redd explained.

"Never has mutual aid in responding to the City of Camden depleted the resources of our surrounding towns."

Redd added mutual aid goes both ways, as Camden firefighters will respond to calls beyond city borders if needed.

Before the city laid off firefighters because of a budget crisis, the department's roster numbered 212. After the layoffs and subsequent rehires through federal grants and a payment in lieu of taxes agreement with the South Jersey Port Corporation, that number is now at 183. Late last month, the city applied for an extra $5.8 million in federal grants to bring back more fire personnel.

Redd also said Monday the New Jersey Attorney General's Office will offer assistance if needed.

"While the causes of the two recent fires are still under investigation, please know that as mayor of this city, I've reached out to the AG to express my concerns at this juncture," Redd said.

"While it is standard protocol, we are calling for a full assessment as to the cause and origin of both warehouse fires that occurred within a very short period of time."

A spokesman for the attorney general declined to detail what that assistance entails.

A victim's relief fund is being established for displaced families. The city also is working with housing providers and the Camden County chapter of the Red Cross to provide temporary shelter.


Philadelphia Inquirer * June 14, 2011

Camden Mayor Voices Concern to N.J. Over Fires

by Darran Simon

After two large fires that tore through vacant warehouses within days of each other last week, Camden's mayor voiced her concern Monday to the state attorney general.

Speaking at a news conference, Mayor Dana L. Redd did not say whether officials thought that Thursday's 12-alarm blaze at a building near the Parkside neighborhood, once rented by a tire company, or Saturday's eight-alarmer in a former garment factory in Waterfront South were considered suspicious.

"My concern is the fact that [the fires] happened within a very short period of time," Redd said Monday, but would not elaborate.

No deaths or major injuries occurred in either fire.

It could take weeks for the city and county fire marshal's offices and other agencies to determine the causes of the blazes, officials said.

The attorney general's staff is not involved in those investigations, said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the office. It will provide assistance if needed, he said.

The size of the fires also was troubling, city attorney Marc Riondino said.

Redd said she wanted to "dispel any misinformation" about the need for manpower from other towns to help Camden firefighters on Thursday and Saturday. Camden's Fire Department is down by 29 positions after layoffs by the cash-strapped city in January.

Camden relies on assistance from suburban companies, most of them staffed by volunteers, when the city's eight companies are all deployed.

On Friday, Kenny Chambers, the union president for Camden's firefighters, said the response by fire departments from more than three dozen towns in Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester Counties that night left those towns vulnerable had a fire broken out in any of them.

A coordinator oversees delivery of mutual aid within the county, and Camden has given the same assistance to its neighbors, Redd said.

"Never has mutual aid in responding to the city of Camden depleted the resources of our surrounding towns," Redd said.

Redd also disputed an assertion by Chambers that there might have been less property damage had more Camden firefighters been on the payroll. Redd, who has found funds to rehire 31 of the 60 firefighters laid off, said the magnitude of the recent fires would have required assistance no matter what.

"Our staffing levels pre-layoff would not have been able to tackle those fires without mutual-aid support," she said.

The city has applied for a $5.8 million federal grant to rehire more fire personnel, Redd said.

Sixteen families were displaced by Thursday's fire, which started around 4:30 p.m. in a building at Chestnut and Orchard Streets and engulfed most of two city blocks. City officials and the county branch of the American Red Cross have worked to get children who were displaced from home back into their classrooms. Officials also are seeking long-term housing for those affected by the fire.

Reliable Tire Co. rented the Chestnut Street building between 1964 and 1999. Chestnut Realty Association, which is listed as the building's owner, "may be a defunct corporation," Riondino said.

A fund that the city plans to establish at PNC Bank will assist victims of Thursday's and Saturday's fires.

The second blaze was at Winslow and Fourth Streets. That fire, which erupted about 2:30 a.m. and was under control by 6 a.m., mostly spared an adjacent block of rowhouses. About 30 residents were displaced, but most returned to their homes that morning.

The Howland Croft Sons & Co. building, which had been used to store building materials and computer monitors, was a haunt of drug dealers and prostitutes, residents said.

Riondino said the property's owner had complied with requests from fire officials to secure the building.

Vandalized fire hydrants, a problem on Thursday, were not a factor on Saturday, Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper said.

Some Waterfront South residents had to replace food that spoiled after their refrigerators were without power for hours. At least one resident praised the efforts by city and local fire departments.

"We really think the firemen did an excellent job. They worked so hard," said Rose Johnson, who lives a block from the fire.

Late in August of 2011, the Camden Police Department put out a "Be On The Look Out" for two fugitives who had been squatting in vacant buildings in South Camden for several months in connection with the Howland Croft fire.. The sad part is that both of these persons were wanted and had outstanding warrants for their arrest prior to the Howland Croft fire, and by rights should have been picked up and incarcerated long before the fire was set. Once again, expediency and the unwillingness to deal with the criminal population, using the excuse "the homeless are the victims" resulted in innocent and law-abiding families being forced from their homes. A government that willingly refuses to protect its citizens has become a de facto accomplice in crimes against them.    

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