Nassau Street blaze an icy inferno

Princeton Packet
27 February, 1990

Dreams, belongings, work gone — victims sickened by losses

By Patti Wieser
Staff Writer

For local businessman Ray Wadsworth, it meant years of hafil„ work reduced to ash in just a foil, short hours.

Thomas Sweet Ice Cream & Chocolates part-owner Tom Block saw it as a “sad sight” that cut short the i& cream shop’s 10th anniversary.

And for Nassau Street reside. Shawn Tabler, it was the loss of all his earthly goods — including an old coat had been wearing since he was a teen. Mr. Table, said the garment had been his most prized possession because it had belonged to his late father.

All three men were discussing how the early morning blaze Mon-day on Nassau Street. which debilitated at least three businesses and five apartments, personally affected them.

“I’m sick to my stomach,” Mr. Wadsworth said, looking at his fire-gutted bakery with tears in his eyes. “You work so hard for so many years to build a business and in a few hours, it’s gone I didn’t buy it (the bakery) or anything, I built it myself.

Numbed emotionally from the shock and physically from the bitter cold, Mr. Wadsworth had been pulling double duty — as a volunteer firefighter as well as a businessman who had just been his with devastatinging losses — beginning at 1 a.m. Monday.

At 8 a.m., with his fireman’s helmet still on, he walked over to his wife, Jackie and put his arm around her as she cried.

“My poor daughter-in-law, everybody has put to much into it,” said Mrs. Wadsworth of the destroyed business. Keith and Ellie Wadsworth, the Wadworths’ son and daughter-in-law, had been central figures in operating the gourmet bakery.

“It’s a hell of a shock after you really sit back and look at it,” added Mr. Wadsworth, after he left the scene around 4:30 p.m. Monday.

Nassau Street blaze an icy inferno

By Patti Wieser
Staff Writer

A fire gutted the American Cafe, Wadsworth’s Gourmet Bakery and Thomas Sweet Ice Cream & Chocolates on Nassau Street early Monday morning, causing an estimated $1.5 million in damages. Also destroyed by fire were the upstairs apartments.

Icicles that looked like they were charred hung from the mansard roofs of the attached historic buildings at 179 Nassau St. while the oe gleaming chrome of the once dineresque cafe was dulled from ashes and tire.

The cause of the blaze is not known.

The combination of flames and bitter cold that was so much a part of Monday’s fire presents a “real problem” io firefighters, said one local fireman. Those moving have impaired mobility when their turnout gear gets covered by ice while firefighters who are stationary —those who operate apparatus have no way of keeping warm, he said. In addition, they encounter intense heat and harsh cold in a brief period.

Many of the firefighters who braved the 4-degree weather warm-ed themselves inside Con’s Store —which provided free coffee and food for the volunteer firefighters who hailed from seven fire corn, parries. The volunteers from Kingston, Princeton Junction, Montgomery and Lawrenceville fire companies, as well as Princeton’s three companies, fought the flames throughout the night. Their work was far from over, however, when daylight broke.

Many of them stayed on the scene while investigators from the Mercer County prosecutor’s office and local police and fire authorities, continued their work.

Although two residents rented two of the five apartments over the businesses were evacuated without harm, four firefighters were treated at the Medical Center at Princeton for smoke inhalation while a fifth was treated for a possible broken thumb, according to police.

In addition, Princeton University McCosh Infirmary provided lodging for one of the two residents removed from the burning building while the second man went to a nearby relative’s, said a spokesman for Princeton University. A third residential tenant had moved out a few hours before the fire, according to one of the reside.

Princeton Borough Police Lt. Peter Hanley said the fire call came in In 12:46 a.m. but added that the name of the person who placed the call was not being released.

Lt. Al Heyesey of the county prosecutor’s office said he was that the cause of the fire that destroyed the 150-year-old buildings and the newer cafe that nudges their western side. The clump, which also includes five apartments and Zorba’s Grill, are all owned by Princeton University. Zorba’s, which is behind Thomas Sweet’s, appeared to sustain little damage.

During the day, a federal agency was called in at the suggestion of the county prosecutor’s investigators.

A white truck from the Department of the Treasury, ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), that was. designated “explosive investigation” was parked in front of be American Cafe.

Mercer County Prosecutor Paul F. Koenig Jr. said he contacted the ATF because of the “nature of this ?articular scene.”

“It’s an unusual time of night and the weather conditions were very severe,” explained Mr. Koenig, adding that the county is called to the scene whenever the origin of a fire cannot be pinpointed.

Mr. Koenig said one of his investigators had requested the help if the ATF because the federal agency has “great experience” in fire origins.

The prosecutor stressed that calling in the ATF is not unusual in this, particular case because of its complexity. When things melt in a fire, they melt into constituent parts, he said. For instance, if a piece of linoleum is heated, it breaks down into different chemicals. So all building materials, in addition to the debris that collapses into the fire scene, creates a “mystery” that is unraveled by investigators who are like archaeologists.

“Anything of any kind of complexity… we have been assisted by the ATF,” said Mr. Koenig, who added that it is not usual to call the ATF but not too much significance should be attached to it.

“There was no hint of an explosion or anything of that nature,” he said.

“We’re investigating the origin of the fire — we do this with all fires,” he added, noting its origin is a “mystery.”

Mr. Koenig, who said no determination has been made that would indicate arson, added he did not know if the rue started in the American Cafe.

The investigation is expected to continue for two days, he said.

“We’re right now looking at the physical scene and conducting some interviews,” said the county prosecutor, adding specimens are also being collected from the scene.

Princeton University Communications Director Justin Harmon said the university acquired the buildings, the older of which had been remodeled in 1870, in 1968. Late Monday afternoon, he said the cafe, bakery and ice cream shop looked like a total loss due to the fire but the state of Zorba’s was still unclear.

Mr. Harmon said it is too soon to speculate on whether the university would rebuild the structures that have been devastated by fire.

The property is managed by the Princeton real estate company of Rendall-Cook & Co.

Rendall property manager Ron Baker said he was at the fire until about 4 a.m.

“We were available if anybody needed emergency lodging or anything of that sort but no one contacted us,” commented Mr. Baker.

Princeton Borough’s main thoroughfare was closed off until 5:20 p.m. Monday as firefighters continued to quell the flames and investigate the blaze throughout the day.

Nassau Street is expected to close again at 8:40 a.m. today, Tuesday, to operate cranes being used to pull the top off the diner during the investigation, said police and university officials.

“They’ll still be wetting down hot spots most of the night,” predicted Princeton Borough Police Lt. Peter Hanley Monday evening.

In 1987, Nicholas Azzollini and Roberta Kim purchased the cafe. which was called the American Diner. Mr. Azzollini could not be reached for comment at press time.

Staff photo • Tom Lederer

Smoke pours from the windows above Wadsworth’s Gourmet Bakery as firefighters battle the blaze.

Staff photo • Mark Czajkowski

After daybreak, icicles hang from the roofs as firefighters survey damage outside Thomas Sweet shop.

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