Absence of electricity eyed as indirect cause of house fire

December 30, 1994 (~estimated)

Absence of electricity eyed as indirect cause of house fire

By Hank Kalet

Staff Writer

The Princeton Borough townhouse that was destroyed by fire last week was without electricity for more than a year, a fact that could have indirectly led to the blaze, Borough Fire Inspector Bill Drake said Monday.

He said that unit owner Ken Gehner, of 33 Sergeant St., had been reading by candlelight Wednesday night because there was no electricity when he went to sleep on the floor.

The candle, which was sitting on a couch, then apparently fell over and ignited the couch, Mr. Drake said.

The fire late Wednesday night destroyed Mr. Gehner’s unit and severely damaged two others. Five residents were left homeless. The other five townhouses in the eight-unit building were not damaged.

The blaze, which was brought under control by firefighters at about 3 a.m. Thursday, was one of the worst in the borough in recent years, said Princeton Fire Chief Benjamin “Roz” Warren.

Mr. Gehner, 50, remained hospitalized in the Medical Center at Princeton Monday after he collapsed Thursday morning on Nassau Street. Hospital officials listed his condition as serious.

He had been released from the hospital Thursday morning after being treated for first- and second-degree burns, but was readmitted after collapsing later that day.

When contacted at the hospital on Monday, Mr. Gehner said he could not remember events leading up to the fire. He also would not comment on his health or on how long he might remain in the hospital.

However, he confirmed that his unit was without water and electricity.

According to Mr. Drake, the electric service had been shut off in April 1993. However, he said he was still awaiting verification from Public Service Electric & Gas Co. on the date service was shut off.

He said that water service had been turned off in December 1993.

Tax records indicate that Mr. Gehner bought the townhouse in 1981 and that the borough has been holding a lien against the property for $3,045.78 in delinquent 1992 taxes. Taxes for 1993 and the first two quarters of 1994 have been paid.

On Monday, firemen were retrieving tarps they used to cover furniture in the two neighboring townhouses and cleanup crews were beginning their work.

Pam Hersh, whose unit was next door to the fire, was surveying the wreckage.

Sheetrock was broken from the ceiling exposing plywood and beams. The electrical system was not working and wallboard was warped.

Ms. Hersh, who has lived in an adjacent Sergeant Street townhouse since it was built in 1981, said she would not be able to move back in for six to eight months.

“I was told that the smell (from the burnt unit) would continue to permeate my place,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to clean my place up when I’m probably going to have to do it again.”

She said she was not sure what she lost in the fire.

“Obviously some furniture is shot and there were a lot of the things that I had hanging on the walls,” she said. “The firemen made a valiant effort to save everything, but everything still got damp. All the walls are soaked, and the floors and the carpets.”

But the damage was not her main concern, Ms. Hersh said.

“The most unsettling thing is trying to find a place where I can end up,” she said.

Outside the building on Monday, townhouse association secretary Ed Nyce stood watching the work crews. He was making a list of repairs caused by the fire.

The firewalls of the unit have to be braced and the roof needs to be reframed, he said.

A temporary roof had been put in place on Thursday to protect the unit from the wet weather anticipated for the weekend.

He said that an emergency meeting of the homeowners association was scheduled for Monday night to address the repairs.

Leave a Reply