Camden Fire Department
The Fires of June & July, 2011
June 14, 2011 - The Concord Chemical Fire
1698 Federal Street


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.

Rumors of arson were flying through the city when, on Tuesday, June 14 a vacant twin at 107 North 34th Street was gutted, with the adjacent home taking a great deal of smoke and water damage.

On June 19, ANOTHER vacant industrial building went up in flames. The building in the 1600 block of Federal Street, originally a soap works and in more recent times a facility belonging to Concord Chemical, went up in flames. This fire was confirmed as an arson a few days later.

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 4, 2011

CLICK ON IMAGES FOR ENLARGED
AND HIGH RESOLUTION VIEWS

Photo by Joel D. Bain

Camden Courier-Post * June 19, 2011
Crews battle blaze at abandoned chemical plant in Camden

A multi-alarm blaze, the third in 10 days at an abandoned industrial site, erupted at a vacant chemical plant just before sunrise Sunday in Camden, causing the building to partially collapse and forcing firefighters to evacuate nearby homes.

The fire, which erupted at around 7 a.m. at Concord Chemical Inc. at 17th and Federal St., comes just more than a week after fires at an abandoned tire factory and a downtown warehouse.

Hazmat crews were checking to see if any chemicals were left in the former plant, which was vacated two years ago, Philadelphia's WPVI-TV reported.

The plant made detergents and cleaning products and underwent a nine-month, $1 million cleanup of asbestos and potentially explosive hazardous materials that the Environmental Protection Agency completed in May.

Chief Jim Jankowski with the Camden County Department of Public Safety told the Associated Press that part of the building had collapsed. No injuries have been reported, he said.

He said it was too early to say what had caused the fire, which was declared under control about three hours after it began. However, the city indicated that all inquiries should now be directed to the Camden County Prosecutor's Office and that they would treat the area as a crime scene.

Last weekend, a fire engulfed a three-story warehouse in downtown Camden. Two days earlier, a blaze consumed an abandoned tire factory and damaged several nearby row homes. At least three firefighters were hospitalized with heat exhaustion.

Those blazes are under investigation.

One resident, Iris Bones, raced home after the fire at the tire factory to check on her family. She said she often sees people around the abandoned buildings and wondered if one of them could have played a role in causing that fire.

"People are always just coming in and out of those abandoned buildings. It's a big problem," she said.

In January, the city of Camden laid off about one-third of its firefighters amid a deep fiscal crisis. Several have been hired back. But the smaller force means that reinforcements from elsewhere have to be brought in sooner, the fire chief has said.

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Philadelphia Inquirer * June 19, 2011
With third Camden fire, arson suspicions mount

By James Osborne
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

In the aftermath of Sunday's six-alarm fire at an abandoned detergent factory in Camden - the city's third major blaze in 10 days - speculation is spreading among residents and officials that an arsonist is at work.

"Now [that] they have a third fire, they're going to be looking at everything," said Christopher Bombardiere, spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "We'll see if there's a link."

ATF agents have joined state and local law enforcement officials in the fire investigations.

"We think it's possible it's an arson, but we don't have a cause yet," Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, said of Sunday's blaze at the former Concord Chemical Inc.

Investigators are reviewing surveillance video from a nearby business, according to sources close to the probe.

A gas station attendant on Admiral Wilson Boulevard said a Camden police detective had stopped by Sunday morning asking whether anyone in a white car or van had filled up gasoline containers.

The man, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, said two men had filled a small container around 2 or 3 a.m. Sunday.

"There's been a lot of fires in a short period of time," the attendant said. "Something funny is going on."

The theory that all three are the handiwork of a serial arsonist follows a news conference last week in which Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd voiced concern over the short time frame in which the first two fires occurred.

Causes of those fires - June 9 at a former tire warehouse in the city's Gateway section and on June 11 at an abandoned garment factory in the Waterfront South district - have not yet been determined. The Reliable Tire Co. inferno destroyed 23 buildings and displaced more than 16 families.

Regarding Sunday's soap plant fire, a man was briefly taken into custody in the morning for questioning and later released, according to sources.

The blaze started around 5:15 a.m. Sunday with flames scaling a 60-foot-high structure on the property, residents said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had completed a six-month, $1 million cleanup at the site in March, removing asbestos and more than 400 containers of hazardous, flammable chemicals.

Referring to what had until recently been on the site, Robert Corrales, a spokesman for the Mayor's Office, said of Sunday's fire: "It could have been really bad."

The factory has been abandoned for at least a couple years, residents said.

Firefighters from departments across Camden County were called to the 1600 block of Federal Street, an industrial area along the Cooper River.

By 10 a.m., the fire had been brought under control, though flames could still be seen within the charred remains of the former factory.

No injuries were reported. But the fire knocked out power for most of the day in a surrounding three-block area, affecting about 500 customers, according to Public Service Electric & Gas Co. A spokeswoman said power was restored by 8:45 p.m.

One home near the fire was evacuated, but residents in a block of rowhouses along Federal Street were allowed to stay put. As smoke from the soap plant drifted through the neighborhood, one man checked on an elderly relative and put up the roof of his convertible.

On the other side of the factory, Louis Santiago, 50, sat on his front steps, watching the firefighters work in the distance.

"I woke up around 8 from the noise. The smoke was so heavy, I was worried for a minute it might spread over here," Santiago said. "The fires, they're all in these warehouse areas. It's weird."

Facebook - June 19, 2011

A Message from Retired Battalion Chief Donald Kelly--- 

Any of you that were on the Concord Chemical building on Federal St. should have a blood tox screen performed by your family Dr. I toured that building when it was in operation and the chemicals were constantly spilled on those wood floors. Naptha, zylene, acetone, all kinds of nasty stuff. Another which may be next on the list could be Stellar Manufacturing off Broadway behind Tiny Women. It is full of radioactive material, they used to put radium on instrument panels. Stay out of there and be carefull!

Retired fire inspector William Colucci:

Retired Battalion Chief Kelly is right, as a fire inspector, when I made my inspection back in the 90's it was full of chemicals, spilled on the floor, and I made that part of my report, and was told [by Concord Chemical -PMC] that it was not harmful to the people working there (I was glad I wasn't working there) and also was asked if that was part of my fire safety report. He was the foremen on the floor back then. I told him it wasn't but it was a heath issue, and asked him to clean it up, it was a big spill on the floor. I just hope that over the years the health inspectors got on the company to do some thing about the spills. He told me it was mostly soap mixer, and that it wasn't a fire hazard, and I never made the re-inspection....

Fire at Concord Chemical, 1698 Federal Street - June 19, 2011
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Camden Courier-Post * June 20, 2011

3rd vacant Camden factory burns this month,
6-alarm chemical plant fire suspicious

Written by Jim Walsh

For the third time this month, a vacant factory erupted in flames here Sunday -- and investigators believe the building may have been torched.

"We do not have a cause, but we're definitely looking at this as a possible arson," Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, said after the six-alarm blaze in East Camden.

The fire was reported around 5:15 a.m. at the former Concord Chemical plant at 17th and Federal streets. The four-story brick building recently underwent a federal cleanup that removed hundreds of containers holding hazardous and flammable materials, authorities said.

The early-morning blaze sent smoke and flames above the derelict factory -- a sight that's become common in this city.

On June 9, a 12-alarm fire that began in a former tire warehouse scorched several blocks in the city's Gateway section, damaging or destroying 20 occupied houses. Two days later, an eight-alarm fire burned down a former factory and a neighboring home in the Waterfront South area.

The causes of the first two fires remain unknown, authorities said.

No injuries were reported at Sunday's blaze, which drew firefighters from Camden and 18 surrounding communities. Some residents were evacuated from their homes, but no one was known to be permanently displaced.

Around 9 a.m. Sunday, investigators appeared to be paying close attention to a nearby building with rooftop video cameras. Police later imposed security lines to keep the public more than a block away from the fire scene.

"We're participating in the investigation," said Laughlin at the prosecutor's office. "We're on it."

Representatives of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms also were at the scene.

Federal officials last month said they'd completed a cleanup of toxic and potentially explosive materials at the Federal Street factory, which once made soaps and cleaning products. Workers removed more than 400 drums and other containers holding hazardous chemicals, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA said it acted because chemicals at the plant had "the potential to explode, ignite or be released into the air."

"The site is now secure and no longer a threat to people or the environment," the EPA said in a statement May 26. It said the building "was secured and the keys transferred to the local fire department."

The EPA said it began the nearly $1 million cleanup after the state Department of Environmental Protection alerted it to conditions in the plant in August 2010. The building also contained asbestos, the EPA said.

The federal agency said some hazardous materials had been "secured" at the plant, where the remaining walls tilted precariously on Sunday afternoon. An agency spokesman could not be reached for further information about the cleanup.

A Concord Chemical representative could not be located.

Unlike the two previous factory fires, Sunday's blaze was in a predominately industrial area. It did not appear to spread to any of few homes nearby.

City officials did not provide an official account of the fire. But the blaze's impact could be felt throughout East Camden, where normally busy Federal Street was closed from State Street to Marlton Pike.

NJ Transit suspended River LINE service south of the 36th Street stop in Pennsauken due to hoses that were stretched across the tracks. The transit agency provided bus service between Camden and Pennsauken until rail service resumed in mid-afternoon.

Several small four-wheel vehicles resembling golf carts made their way around the area, carrying food and water for firefighters over a roughly mile-square area as the temperature climbed into the 80s.

"In a situation like this, we've got to be able to reach the firefighters," said Lt. Tim Kraft of Deer Park Fire Co., a volunteer relief unit based in Cherry Hill.

"We're watching each other."


Camden Courier-Post * June 21, 2011

Camden fires: A common link?
Written by GEORGE MAST and LUCAS K. MURRAY

 CAMDEN  A team of about 20 Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators is expected today to pick through the shell of the former Concord Chemical plant that burned Sunday at 17th and Federal streets in Camden.

The six-alarm blaze -- which authorities initially described as a possible arson -- gutted the brick factory early Sunday. It was the third inferno to destroy a city warehouse since a 12-alarm fire in the city's Gateway section June 9.

ATF spokesman Christopher Bombardiere said Monday federal authorities have been in contact with the city regarding the fires and volunteered to take the lead on the Federal Street blaze.

"Their knowledge and experience in handling these types of fires is pretty much second to none," Bombardiere said of ATF National Response Teams.

Some ATF investigators were already at the scene Monday, along with city and county investigators. City firefighters remained at the fire site for most of the day, dousing water onto hot spots at the partially collapsed building.

Several blocks of the normally bustling Federal Street remained closed off in the area of the warehouse.

Bombardiere said ATF investigators will examine all possible scenarios and hope to determine a cause within a few days. The federal agents are not involved in the ongoing investigations of the two earlier fires. No possible causes have been given for those blazes.

Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, said investigators are seeking links between the causes of the fires.

"We don't know if there are yet," he added.

All were multi-alarm calls and each burned brick and timber buildings built prior to 1900.

Sunday's fire broke out around 5:15 a.m. at the one-time soap and chemical manufacturing plant. Just last month, federal authorities announced they had completed an extensive cleanup of toxic and potentially explosive materials at the site.

Unlike the two earlier fires, the building is in a mostly industrial area.


Philadelphia Inquirer * June 21, 2011

More federal experts will probe latest Camden fire

By Darran Simon
Inquirer Staff Writer

Additional federal investigators will join local, state, and county officials probing the third major fire in Camden in 10 days.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives' national team of about 20 experts, including forensic chemists, is expected to start work Tuesday at the scene of Sunday's six-alarm fire at a vacant former detergent factory, agency spokesman Chris Bombardiere said.

Some ATF agents already were present Monday as firefighters hosed down hot spots at the former Concord Chemical Inc. factory on the 1600 block of Federal Street, in an industrial neighborhood. The building went up in flames around 5:15 a.m. Sunday.

The three fires - starting with a 12-alarm blaze at a former tire warehouse near the city's Parkside section June 9, and followed two days later by an eight-alarmer at an abandoned garment factory in the Waterfront South neighborhood - has created anxiety among some who live and work in the city, who fear an arsonist may be at work.

"Of course they're suspicious," said Budd Hagelin, owner of Lenola Auto Mall at 16th and Federal Streets.

A spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, which reviewed surveillance video from a business near the Concord site, said Sunday that officials were unsure of the fire's cause but considered it a possible arson.

The ATF spokesman said it was too soon to make a judgment, however.

"This is not a criminal investigation," Bombardiere said. "It's just a fire investigation."

The State Fire Marshal's Arson/K-9 Unit was present Monday at the scene of the third fire. The state Department of Community Affairs would not comment on the agency's investigation, but a state website said K-9s were used to detect accelerants.

The Concord building had been vacant for several years. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency said that it had removed more than 400 drums, pails, and other containers of hazardous chemicals, including hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid, from the site.

The ATF's national response teams are mobilized within 24 hours of major arson and explosive incidents, and were involved in investigations after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, according to the agency.

The federal agency typically offers assistance after large fires and approached Camden authorities, Bombardiere said. It also has offered technical assistance in the investigation into the June 9 fire, he said.

He said the agency activated its national team because of the size of the most recent fire and because of the frequency of the blazes.

Efforts are under way to help victims of the first fire, which destroyed about 23 buildings and leveled nearly two blocks. About 30 residents were displaced in the June 11 fire, but most were able to return to their homes.

One home was evacuated near Sunday's fire, but residents in a block of rowhouses were allowed to stay put. Cathedral Kitchen, a Federal Street nonprofit group that feeds the homeless and whose building is a block from the fire site, was closed Monday after authorities shut portions of the street, according to a recording on its voice mail.

Camden officials have established a relief fund at PNC Bank branches in New Jersey and Philadelphia for victims of the first two fires.

The District Council Collaborative Boards, a citywide group of volunteer groups, will hold a beef and beer fund-raiser to help the victims on Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m. at St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church, 751 Kaighns Ave.

A veteran Camden city firefighter who belongs to one of the first companies that responded June 11 at Waterfront South said Monday that it was "strange" how quickly the fire moved.

By the time a ladder truck was set up on Winslow Street, the flames had ripped through to Fourth Street, according to the firefighter, who did not want to have his name used because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.

When another ladder truck set up on Fourth, the fire had moved on to Jefferson Street, he said.

"They used something in there," he said. In "less than a half-hour, the whole building was gone."


Camden Courier-Post * June 22, 2011

ATF Experts Arrive In Camden To Probe Blaze

Written by Lucas K. Murray

CAMDEN  Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived Tuesday in Camden to examine rubble from the blaze that gutted the Concord Chemical plant Sunday.

ATF Newark Division Special Agent in Charge Matthew Horace said there is a significant amount of work that needs to be done. A specialized group of about 20 fire investigators with backgrounds in multiple fields are working the scene at 17th and Federal streets.

ATF officials warned a cause for the fire at the five-story brick and timber factory isn't likely to be announced soon.

"The National Response Team will be here until a cause and origin are determined," Horace said.

"Whether it's two days or 10 days, we're not leaving until we have an answer."

Explosives experts, engineers and dogs with a nose for accelerants are involved in the case. But investigators first have to ensure remnants of the six-alarm blaze don't come toppling down on them.

"There's a lot of work that needs to be done," Horace explained.

Once the building is secured, Horace said, ATF agents from as far away as Denver will work with city, county and state officials to find a cause. The team took less than 36 hours to be assembled and arrive in Camden.

The National Response Team typically is brought out for fires with losses that exceed $1 million or cause significant deaths or injuries. The special unit has investigated incidents that include the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and a bombing at the summer Olympic Games in Atlanta the following year.

"What you can expect to see is people out working the scene over the course of the next several days and they will be on scene until a cause and origin is determined," Horace said.

State and city fire marshals in jumpsuits and construction helmets walked the perimeter of the former Concord plant Monday as Camden firefighters continued to douse hot spots.

Soap and other cleaning products were manufactured at the site of this latest fire for years before the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection cleared the hazardous waste site. The EPA previously stated the materials found inside were potentially explosive and removed as part of the building's remediation.

Fire Chief Michael Harper said the fire department was furnished with a copy of everything that was left inside following the cleanup and those materials were consistent with what would be found in any industrial structure.

"Everything volatile or anything that would be extremely harmful was removed," Harper said.

About 3,000 abandoned structures stand in Camden, targets of thieves seeking scrap metal and sites for drug or other illegal activity. Police Chief J. Scott Thomson said his department has cataloged and prioritized buildings throughout the city for added protection.

"We are increasing patrols in those locations. If there are access points, we're getting them boarded up as quickly as possible.

"The sites that could be most vulnerable are receiving enhanced patrols."

Both Thomson and Horace declined to call the three fires in 10 days arson, but agreed they were suspicious. Meanwhile, police and officials from the Camden County Prosecutor's Office are investigating.

Also, the prosecutor's office issued a directive that all building fires in the city should be treated as crime scenes to preserve potential evidence. City police will take control "of all fire scenes as soon as the fire department has extinguished the flames," the agency said.

Firefighters and police were outside a large building at Kaighn Avenue and Front Street on Tuesday morning surveying the property, a known target for squatters and scrappers.

Camden Mayor Dana Redd said the temperature of the community right now is one of great concern.

"I've done everything to reassure the community that we're working with our law enforcement partners to get to the bottom of this," she said.


Philadelphia Inquirer * June 22, 2011

Federal officials say they're there
for the duration in Camden fire probe

By Darran Simon
Inquirer Staff Writer

Federal authorities Tuesday pledged to remain in Camden until experts determine the cause and origin of Sunday's fire in a former detergent factory, the third blaze in a vacant city warehouse in less then two weeks.

"Whether it takes two days or 10 days, we're not leaving until we have an answer," Matthew Horace, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives' Newark, N.J., office, said at a news conference at Camden police headquarters.

The ATF, which sent a team to Camden at the city's request, will lead local and state authorities in investigating Sunday's six-alarm blaze and try to establish whether it was connected to the earlier fires.

Aware of concerns by residents, some of whom have speculated that an arsonist is responsible, authorities said they were taking precautions.

Police have increased patrols near vacant sites officials believe are vulnerable and are boarding up buildings if needed, said Police Chief Scott Thomson, who called the fires suspicious.

Sunday's blaze broke out around 5:15 a.m. at the former Concord Chemical building on the 1700 block of Federal Street. One home was evacuated and one person was taken to a hospital for heat-related treatment, Fire Chief Michael Harper said.

The fire followed an eight-alarm blaze June 11 that destroyed a vacant garment factory in the Waterfront South neighborhood. Homes near the factory were largely spared.

A 12-alarm fire June 9 in a former tire warehouse near the city's Parkside section destroyed about 23 buildings and displaced 16 families.

Sweltering temperatures June 9 made firefighters' work more difficult, but vandalized hydrants and trouble finding enough water posed more serious problems.

Firefighters could not hook up to hydrants on Mount Vernon or Louis Streets because vandals had stolen the brass fittings used to connect their hoses.

Those hydrants, like most of the city's 3,000, are maintained by United Water of Bergen County.

This week, New Jersey American Water will perform what is typically its fall inspection of the nearly 400 Camden hydrants for which it is responsible, most in Cramer Hill.

"We want to make sure that if the firefighters in Camden need that water, they've got it," said Peter Eschbach, director of communications and external affairs for the Voorhees-based utility.

Firefighters used about three million gallons from at least six of its hydrants Sunday, Eschbach said."


Philadelphia Inquirer * June 24, 2011

1 of Camden's 3 big fires declared arson

By Geoff Mulvihill
Associated Press

CAMDEN, N.J. - One of three huge fires that struck abandoned Camden industrial buildings this month was ruled an arson on Friday, a federal fire official said.

The other two fires, also considered suspicious, may be harder for local authorities to solve because of fewer resources, the prosecutor said.

The blaze that broke out before dawn Sunday in a former building of the Concord Chemical Company was the third in the city in 10 days. Camden had not seen such large fires in about three years.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sent in about 20 specialists Monday, including chemists and electrical engineers, with orders to stay until the determined a cause.

They had it by Friday: As suspected , arson.

Matthew Horace, special agent in charge of the ATF in New Jersey, would not give any details about how the fire may have been started or why. He said the information is now part of a criminal investigation.

Horace said his agency, which also is assisting in the investigation of the fires that broke out June 9 and 11, is offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of whoever set the Concord fire.

The June 9 fire burned more than 20 buildings and left the homes of 16 families uninhabitable. The fires did not cause any life-threatening injuries, although some firefighters and civilians were treated for smoke inhallation and heat exhaustion.

Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk said solving the earlier two fires is a more difficult job. The local fire marshals in charge of investigating them don't have an army of workers or specialists available. And in one of the fires, the little that was left of the building was unstable and had to be knocked down, leaving even less physical evidence.

Police Chief Scott Thomson said residents need to report suspicious activity around abandoned buildings and be vigilant about vandalism of fire hydrants. Broken hydrants made fighting the June 9 fire more difficult.

He said his department is increasing patrols around buildings that could be targeted. But in a city with 3,000 abandoned structures, that's a challenge.

Thursday night another fire broke out in a fourth abandoned industrial building. But Fire Chief Michael Harper said it was a routine one-alarm fire and was put out quickly. It, too, is under investigation.


Camden Courier-Post * June 25, 2011

Camden's Blaze Ruled Arson by Federal Agents

By George Mast

CAMDEN  Federal officials said Friday that an inferno that gutted the former Concord Chemical plant in Camden last weekend was intentionally set.

Sunday's six-alarm blaze at 17th and Federal streets is the first of three major fires at abandoned warehouses over a 10-day period to be ruled as arson.

A 12-alarm fire on June 9 in the city's Gateway section and an eight-alarm blaze two days later along Broadway in the Waterfront South neighborhood are listed as "suspicious."

Meanwhile, a blaze at an abandoned warehouse Thursday night in the city's Parkside section was quickly knocked down by firefighters and did little damage. The one-alarm fire, which was reported around 8 p.m., scorched only a large pile of garbage and debris dumped in a single-story block building along Magnolia Avenue.

Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper described the fire as being "typical" of many small blazes in the city.

While state and local officials will continue to investigate the first two warehouse fires, attention into last Sunday's blaze is now centered on identifying and locating the person responsible.

Officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced a $5,000 reward on Friday for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist behind the chemical plant fire.

"There are a significant number of law enforcement agencies looking at this fire and looking for the person or persons responsible," said Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk. "That investigation is continuing, it is vigorous and it will be pursued until we find the persons responsible for it."

While announcing the most recent fire was an act of arson, Matthew Horace, the ATF Newark Field Division's Special Agent, declined to discuss any specifics of how the blaze was started.

Within 36 hours of Sunday's fire, about 20 members of the ATF's National Response Team -- some from as far as Denver -- arrived at the fire scene, pledging to stay in Camden as long as it took to determine a cause to the blaze.

Horace said the team of experts was called out in part because it was the third large, suspicious fire in just over a week in the city and because the building was a former commercial site.

Horace said the ATF investigators will not be involved in the investigation of the previous two fires unless evidence confirms the three are related. While eerily similar, the three fires have not been proved to be related. All three blazes broke out at old, brick- and timber-constructed warehouses.

The string of fires began the afternoon of June 9 when a blaze broke out at an abandoned tire warehouse, spreading over several blocks at Chestnut and Orchard streets and ultimately destroying or damaging as many as 20 homes. Early two days later, an eight-alarm fire burned down a former mill and a neighboring home at 4th and Winslow streets in the Waterfront South area.

Sunday's fire broke out around 5:15 a.m. at the one-time soap and chemical manufacturing plant. Just last month, federal authorities announced they had completed an extensive cleanup of toxic and potentially explosive materials at the site.

Unlike the two earlier fires, the building is in a mostly industrial area.

No serious injuries have occurred in any of the fires but they have put some area residents and business owners on edge.

Thursday night's fire broke out in a small warehouse in a long-ago discarded lot across the street from Imperial Transport & Leasing. Owners of the shipping company, Joy and Paula Dickerson, said Friday they had been worried the mostly secluded building would be the next to go up in flames -- possibly putting their own business in danger.

The sisters fear an arsonist could be responsible for all of the recent fires.

"It seems like they are trying to send a message to (Camden Mayor) Dana Redd that you laid off all these firefighters and now we need them," Joy Dickerson said..


Philadelphia Inquirer * June 25, 2011

ATF Rules Arson In Last Major Camden Fire

By Darran Simon
Inquirer Staff Writer

Arson was the cause of a fire Sunday in a former detergent factory in Camden - the third suspicious fire in a vacant warehouse in the city in less than two weeks, federal investigators said Friday.

"The fire was deliberately set. In other words, the fire is an arson, and we will be investigating the scene as a crime from here forward," said Matthew Horace, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Newark, N.J., office.

Horace declined to specify how the fire was set or where it began.

The two earlier suspicious blazes this month may be harder to solve because of fewer clues at the scenes and less investigative expertise, said Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk.

The ATF offered a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Sunday's arson, Horace said, urging anyone with information to call a newly created hotline at 1-888-283-3473.

"That investigation is continuing. It is vigorous, and it will be pursued until we find the persons responsible," Faulk said.

The ATF's national team of experts, including electrical engineers, chemists, and other specialists, was sent to Camden this week at the request of local officials. The ATF has not turned its attention to the other fires, Horace said.

"I am not sure that we are going to have the same amount of information from the first two fires that was obtained by this national response team from the ATF in this third fire," Faulk said. "So I don't know what sort of comparisons can be made."

But comparisons will be made if possible, he said.

The city has about 3,000 abandoned buildings, many of which are used frequently by drug dealers, prostitutes, and scrap metal thieves.

Police Chief Scott Thomson said patrols would be increased around some vacant buildings, and he asked residents to "remain ever vigilant."

Sunday's blaze broke out around 5:15 a.m. at the former Concord Chemical building on the 1700 block of Federal Street. One home was evacuated, and one person was taken to a hospital.

The first suspicious fire this month was a 12-alarm blaze June 9 that started in a former tire-distribution center near the city's Parkside section that damaged 23 buildings, 10 of which were occupied. More than half of the buildings were severely damaged, and 16 families lost their homes.

A second, eight-alarm fire occurred June 11, gutting a former garment factory in the Waterfront South neighborhood. Homes near the factory were largely spared.

The three industrial buildings were made of brick and heavy timber, Fire Chief Michael Harper said.

A fourth warehouse fire, a minor one-alarm blaze, broke out Thursday around 8 p.m. in an abandoned building on the 1000 block of Magnolia Avenue in the Parkside section. The cause of that fire remains under investigation.


 

Photo

 

Matthew Horace, head of the Newark , N.J., office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives , with Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson (left) and Fire Chief Michael Harper.


Philadelphia Inquirer * June 25, 2011

Camden and its residents survey fires' wake,
assess their next moves

By Claudia Vargas
Inquirer Staff Writer

Amid the vast field of rubble on Orchard Street in the heart of Camden, Elmer Walker walks into what used to be his backyard.

A small, charred grill is the only thing standing after a fire in an old tire warehouse swept through his neighborhood June 9.

As Walker looks around the piles of brick, a police officer jumps out of her parked cruiser, yelling: "What do you think you are doing? Get your butt out of there!"

Orchard Street is now a crime scene, and not even residents are allowed on their property until the fire marshal's investigation is complete.

The devastation and frustration in Walker's Gateway neighborhood are matched in two other sections of Camden also ravaged by spectacular fires this month. On June 11, a fire in a former garment factory spread to homes in Waterfront South, and last Sunday, a blaze at a former detergent factory ripped through East Camden. Arson has been identified as the cause of the Sunday blaze and is suspected in the other two fires.

For a city already dealing with poverty and blight, the fires have brought devastating new burdens, both emotional and financial. Twenty-three houses were destroyed or damaged. Ten of them were occupied.

Four city blocks are charred, with at least $1.8 million in damage. Dozens of fire victims are looking for temporary housing. Many homeowners lack insurance to rebuild, and the city has no money to demolish burned-out buildings.

The removal of debris must await completion of the investigation, which fire officials said could take months. Then, who pays for the cleanup costs in a city where government and residents are broke?

Each owner is legally responsible for property cleanup, which can cost more than $10,000 - half the value of many residents' homes.

If the owner disappears, leaving behind debris and unpaid taxes, the city can place a lien on the property, said Bill Quinn, a spokesman for the state Treasury Department. But that's not much of a threat in a city where more than 4,000 abandoned properties already have municipal liens, including some properties that are charred piles from fires years ago.

The city is taking over the effort to collect on those liens from a tax-collection firm, Xspand, previously owned by former Gov. Jim Florio. Xspand's five-year contract with the city will expire Thursday.

The city also recently started using the state Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act, which gives it power to hold special tax sales, accelerate foreclosure on tax liens, and use eminent domain to turn over properties to new owners who will rehabilitate them.

But it is unclear if the city intends to use the law on damaged and abandoned properties that are left near the Orchard Street fire scene or if it plans to use any previous demolition grants to clean up the site.

The city received $1.8 million from the state Department of Community Affairs in 2008 to demolish about 96 properties by the end of this year. It recently applied for a $2 million loan from the DCA to demolish 115 other properties.

City officials refused to discuss their plans and referred all questions to the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, where spokesman Jason Laughlin said, "We don't have those answers."

It costs the city $13,000 to $23,000 to demolish and clean up a house, according to recent city demolition contracts.

Residents whose fire-damaged houses are still standing must make the tough decision whether to fix their homes or move.

"We haven't decided what to do," said Sandra Arroyo, whose Chestnut Street rowhouse lost its roof and suffered water damage to its second floor in the June 9 fire.

Arroyo, a Spanish teacher in Oaklyn and the mother of 3-year-old triplets, and her husband, Justo, have been taking turns going to the house to clean up the debris and salvage what they can.

"My father bought me this house for my wedding present. I'm attached to the house," she said.

But Arroyo said she feared the wall of the burned-out warehouse next door might fall on her house, which she has owned for 13 years.

"I'm not feeling safe here," she said. "I'm not bringing my kids in." She and her family are staying in Pennsauken with her mother.

Thomas Inge, who lives next door to the Arroyos, said his insurance had lapsed, so he must pay to repair his house, which sustained extensive water and smoke damage.

"The firefighters went through my front door and upstairs to fight the fire," said Inge, a resident since 1998. "They made a big mess, tore the ceiling up."

Inge is saving his receipts, hoping someone will be held accountable for the fires and he can be reimbursed for the cost of fixing his house

"I've got to worry about eminent domain," he said. The city "might come and say, 'Oh, well, you have so much damage. Here's what we'll give you.' "

What happens to the giant mess left by the old warehouses and factories?

City officials are still trying to determine who some of the owners are.

Chestnut Realty Association appears as the owner of the Orchard and Chestnut Street tire warehouse on tax records. But city officials say the Cherry Hill company appears to be defunct. The property has a $332,000 tax lien that has accumulated since 2001.

Shyang J. Lin, whose business, E-Zone Management, has owned the large garment factory space at Winslow and Jefferson in Waterfront South since the early 1990s, said: "Ten years ago, I saw a bright future for Camden, like Brooklyn. That's why I moved in here." But over the years he has been faced with transient tenants and in recent years with vandalism and theft.

Lin said he did not know what would happen with what was left of the old factory, which he had recently used for his North Camden electronics recycling company. He said he was underinsured and waiting for law enforcement agencies to finish their investigation of the property to assess his next move.

The Concord Chemical Co. building at 17th and Federal Streets, which was torched last Sunday, operated until a few years ago. Multiple owners are listed under the company name, and investigators are having difficulty tracking down the owner.

Probably the last time Camden was so devastated by fire was 1972, when North Camden suffered the so-called Poet's Row Fire, said Phil Cohen, who has a local history website, www.DVRBS.com.

On a hot summer night, a fire started in the former John R. Evans Co. leather factory at Second and Erie Streets. As in this month's Chestnut Street fire, the blaze jumped quickly to rowhouses. 

Forty-two houses and the factory collapsed, and 30 houses were severely damaged.

 "It was a year or two after the riots, so no one was rebuilding anything in North Camden," Cohen said, referring to racial unrest in 1971 that caused millions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses and accelerated Camden's postwar decline.

 He said he expected similar neglect in the Gateway neighborhood, where Elmer Walker's home is now just a pile of bricks.

 "Only two houses have been built there in the last 40 years," Cohen said. .


Camden Courier-Post * June 27, 2011
Reprinted without changes from June 25 newspaper

Camden Blaze Ruled Arson By Federal Agents
Written by GEORGE MAST

CAMDEN  Federal officials said Friday that an inferno that gutted the former Concord Chemical plant in Camden last weekend was intentionally set.

Sunday's six-alarm blaze at 17th and Federal streets is the first of three major fires at abandoned warehouses over a 10-day period to be ruled as arson.

A 12-alarm fire on June 9 in the city's Gateway section and an eight-alarm blaze two days later along Broadway in the Waterfront South neighborhood are listed as "suspicious."

Meanwhile, a blaze at an abandoned warehouse Thursday night in the city's Parkside section was quickly knocked down by firefighters and did little damage. The one-alarm fire, which was reported around 8 p.m., scorched only a large pile of garbage and debris dumped in a single-story block building along Magnolia Avenue.

Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper described the fire as being "typical" of many small blazes in the city.

While state and local officials will continue to investigate the first two warehouse fires, attention into last Sunday's blaze is now centered on identifying and locating the person responsible.

Officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives announced a $5,000 reward on Friday for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist behind the chemical plant fire.

"There are a significant number of law enforcement agencies looking at this fire and looking for the person or persons responsible," said Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk. "That investigation is continuing, it is vigorous and it will be pursued until we find the persons responsible for it."

While announcing the most recent fire was an act of arson, Matthew Horace, the ATF Newark Field Division's Special Agent, declined to discuss any specifics of how the blaze was started.

Within 36 hours of Sunday's fire, about 20 members of the ATF's National Response Team -- some from as far as Denver -- arrived at the fire scene, pledging to stay in Camden as long as it took to determine a cause to the blaze.

Horace said the team of experts was called out in part because it was the third large, suspicious fire in just over a week in the city and because the building was a former commercial site.

Horace said the ATF investigators will not be involved in the investigation of the previous two fires unless evidence confirms the three are related. While eerily similar, the three fires have not been proved to be related. All three blazes broke out at old, brick- and timber-constructed warehouses.

The string of fires began the afternoon of June 9 when a blaze broke out at an abandoned tire warehouse, spreading over several blocks at Chestnut and Orchard streets and ultimately destroying or damaging as many as 20 homes. Early two days later, an eight-alarm fire burned down a former mill and a neighboring home at 4th and Winslow streets in the Waterfront South area.

Sunday's fire broke out around 5:15 a.m. at the one-time soap and chemical manufacturing plant. Just last month, federal authorities announced they had completed an extensive cleanup of toxic and potentially explosive materials at the site.

Unlike the two earlier fires, the building is in a mostly industrial area.

No serious injuries have occurred in any of the fires but they have put some area residents and business owners on edge.

Thursday night's fire broke out in a small warehouse in a long-ago discarded lot across the street from Imperial Transport & Leasing. Owners of the shipping company, Joy and Paula Dickerson, said Friday they had been worried the mostly secluded building would be the next to go up in flames -- possibly putting their own business in danger.

The sisters fear an arsonist could be responsible for all of the recent fires.

"It seems like they are trying to send a message to (Camden Mayor) Dana Redd that you laid off all these firefighters and now we need them," Joy Dickerson said.

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