SOMERVILLE, N.J. (CBSNewYork) – A massive fire in New Jersey burned for hours Friday morning, destroying one building and alarming neighbors.
Some are saying it’s another example of a dangerous construction practice that puts people at risk.
The vacant building was under construction and nearly completed when it was just gutted by flames. One fire expert called it a “toothpick tower” that didn’t stand a chance once the fire started.
Video from Chopper 2 shows the sheer destruction, from above. On the ground, neighbors watched the Somerville Parc apartment building on James Street burn.
“Bigger and bigger. It’s very sad,” neighbor Ladis Almada said.
“Very smoky. Within an hour or so, the entire street was filled with smoke,” neighbor Jennifer Eagan told CBS2’s Nick Caloway.
Somerville’s mayor also noticed the smoke from his home several blocks away.
“About 9:15, 9:30, I smelled smoke. I said, well, it’s a little too early for a backyard barbecue,” Mayor Dennis Sullivan said.
The fire started in the cockloft, or attic space, and spread so fast that by the time firefighters arrived, it was too late. Officials say the small, lightweight wood materials used to construct the building, especially in the attic, fueled the fire.
“That does tend to burn faster than solid, dimensional lumber,” said Somerville Fire Marshal Robert Lynn.
Lynn says those lightweight materials are up to code but are still dangerous, especially for fire crews.
“That’s a worst nightmare for a firefighter,” he said.
“From a fire services perspective, this is an incredibly difficult fire to put out for us, and we’ve been trying to advocate for changes to our state building code because of that,” said Glenn Corbett.
Corbett is an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College. He says the construction is similar to the massive Avalon Apartment complex in Edgewater, that was destroyed by fire in 2015 and left 500 people homeless.
“The characteristics of these buildings, they have very large void areas – hidden areas in the attic and of course between the floors – that allows fires to spread very quickly through them. Because it’s effectively a lumber yard inside that void space,” Corbett said.
Corbett is calling for better sprinkler systems and fire walls in new construction projects in New Jersey.
Fire officials say there were sprinkler systems in the attic of the Somerville Parc apartments, but it’s not clear if they had been activated.
Caloway asked the building owners for comment, but they declined.
No injuries were reported. Over 100 firefighters arrived to battle the blaze. Residents were supposed to start moving into the 88-unit building in September.
The fire marshal’s office spent the day investigating the cause of the fire.
Next door, another large new apartment building in the complex did have residents living inside. That building was partially evacuated during the fire, but the damage was isolated to just one building.
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