UNION CITY, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Firefighters are investigating to find out what sparked an eight-alarm blaze in northern New Jersey that left dozens of residents homeless.

LISTEN: WCBS 880’s Sean Adams reports

“I lost everything.  I lost everything,” Ricardo Barrera told CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider.

Barrera, his wife and two daughters were among nearly 60 residents forced out their homes when the fire broke out around 9 p.m. Wednesday in the basement of a three-story apartment building on Bergenline Avenue in Union City.

“It was a very difficult basement fire. They couldn’t find and see the fire,” said acting Fire Chief Frank Montane. “It got to a point where the conditions got so hot and severe that companies had to back out.”

“We were coming downstairs and the whole basement was smoking and you couldn’t breathe,” said resident Claudia Rubina.

“When I saw the smoke coming from the basement, I knew something was wrong. So I got out and I saw the smoke in the next building,” said resident Diana Clavero.

Firefighters battle a blaze on Bergenline Avenue - Union City, NJ - Jan 19, 2012 (credit: Sean Adams / WCBS 880)

Firefighters battle a blaze on Bergenline Avenue in Union City, NJ on Jan. 19, 2012 (credit: Sean Adams/WCBS 880)

Most of the residents got out and have been staying at a local school, but there is word that someone might have been trapped in the basement.

“The prosecutor’s office informed me that there is a witness who said there is someone unaccounted for,” said Dep. Fire Chief Mike Cranwell of the North Hudson Fire Department.

“There was a report of someone in the basement, but we’re not sure at this point,” said Montane. “We can’t really get in there, it’s too dangerous right now. We’ll have to wait till everything clears.”

“Everything, I had my clothes, furniture, money, jewelry, everything. Everything,” Clavero said.

“It’s disheartening.  Everything just looks destroyed.  It’s rebuilding time,” said resident Robert Pinard.

Montane said the old buildings don’t have modern firewalls and because the roofs are all connected, the fire spread quickly to nearby buildings.

“Newer construction would be totally different,” he said. “You have sprinkler systems, you have firewalls, you have brick walls. These are very old buildings. They’ve been here for 50 to 100 years and that’s the way they built them years ago, they were all attached. Once the fire travels in there, it’s old, it’s dusty and the fire just races through there. It’s a race against time. You have to get ahead of it.”

LISTEN: 1010 WINS’ Steve Sandberg reports

The difficult weather conditions made fighting the blaze even worse. At least 13 firefighters sustained minor injuries.

“The companies had difficult time due to the cold weather. They would slip and fall, there were frozen lines. It was a very difficult operation,” said Montane.

1010 WINS reports one firefighter broke his hand after slipping on ice.

Union City Mayor Brian Stack says there will be a drive to help those displaced by the fire.

“It’s a devastating fire and a very cold night for these families,” he said. “These are very poor families, families that are just trying to make ends meet. Many of their apartments and belongings are destroyed.”

It’s still not known what started the blaze. Officials are assessing whether any of the buildings involved will need to be knocked down.

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