The Daily Princetonian
11 January 1980
Adjacent businesses also hit; no serious injuries reported
By LEWIS KNOX
HARMAN GROSSMAN and
A general alarm blaze burned out of control for more than three hours on Nassau Street Wednesday evening, gutting the Value Fair discount store and causing extensive damage to several adjacent businesses.
The only injuries in the blaze were minor, to two of the 150-odd firemen and rescue workers fighting the conflagration. Some 50 people in the Hudibras restaurant, adjacent to Value Fair, were quickly evacuated through the restaurant’s back door when smoke was first spotted inside at about 8 p.m.
The cause of the blaze remained uncertain yesterday, as local and county investigators picked their way through the rubble of Value Fair, at 136 Nassau Street.
William Shields, chief of Princeton’s volunteer fire department, said it began in the back of the store, and that investigators thus far have found nothing suspicious.
Shields put the damage to Value Fair and Hudibras, housed in the same budding, at $150,000. The vast majority of that was in Value Fair, he said. At Hudibras, the
damage was largely confined to the long carpeted hallway which leads from the street to the main part of the restaurant. The eatery’s manager said he hopes to reopen sometime next month.
Shields could not estimate the cost of water and smoke damage to three businesses adjacent to the burned building: Allen’s, a children’s clothing store, Hulit’s Shoe Store and the Nassau Hobby and Craft Shop.
The injured men were Princeton fireman Michael Perna, cut over his right eye, and Michael Carnevale, son of the borough police chief and a member of the local rescue squad, who dislocated his shoulder. Both were treated at Princeton medical center and released.
As smoke poured out of Value Fair Wednesday night, the store’s general manager stood across the street, watching it burn.
“And I kept this place like a dollhouse,” said Harold Duchin. “There won’t be nothing left. Oh, my God, I’m sick.”
Duchin said he and stockboy Don Rickert left the store at 7:58 p.m., with everything “fine.”
Rickert concurred with his boss’ account exactly, even on the precise time of their departure: 7:58. he said.
Rickert said there was “definitely no smoke” when they left. “I am certain the fire did not start in Value Fair,” he said Wednesday night. “It started in Hudibras.” “
Sounds the alarm
At the time, Helen Meade had stayed to have a drink at Hudibras’ bar after dropping off a shipment of the pies that she bakes for the restaurant.
She headed toward the hall to make a phone call, and saw smoke.
She told the restaurant manager.
“We didn’t really think it was that serious,” she said Wednesday night. “We just nonchalantly called the fire department.”
The call, actually to borough
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police, came in at 7:59 p.m., fire chief Shields said.
An announcement was made over the restaurant’s intercom, and the 50-odd diners and drinkers were quickly herded out the back door.
“There was no panic at all,” Meade said. “If I had known it was going to be like this,” she said, pointing at the fire-filled building, “I would have just run.”
Local firemen arrived on the scene quickly, but at first didn’t know where to go.
“Nassau Street was covered with smoke,” said a firefighter who arrived early. “We couldn’t find the fire.”
After entering through the back of Hudibras, firemen moved through the restaurant’s hall in search of the blaze. Shields said.
They went out the restaurant’s Nassau Street entrance and found it next door.
As more men and equipment arrived, the firefighters punched through the glass front windows of Value Fair and began pouring water into the store.
Occupants of apartments next door, above Hulit’s, were evacuated, and residents of buildings further away were told to prepare to leave, in case the fire spread.
Meanwhile, police cordoned off Nassau Street from Palmer Square to Washington Road.
A crowd of onlookers, more than 500 of them, gathered across the street from the fire on the sidewalk and hill in front of Firestone Library.
Among them was the owner of Value Fair, Joseph Parvin, back from a visit to his father in Brooklyn in time to see his store burn. He didn’t want to talk about it.
Carmen Gagliardo, manager of Hudibras, stood with his hands jammed into his pockets, just up the block from the blaze.
He stared at the burning building, shaking his head. “Son of a bitch.” he said.
Trucks arrived to spread sand on the street in front of the building, to keep firemen from slipping on the ice that formed in the freezing cold temperature.
A group of firemen let Vince Iorio and other members of his musical quintet slip into the back entrance of Hudibras to retrieve their instruments, left inside temporarily from a previous night’s gig. The group emerged with two sets of drums.
“Can’t breathe in there at all,” Iorio reported. “There’s smoke all over.”
President Bowen walked around the entire area, checking to see whether anyone was hurt, and whether any students had been in Hudibras.
At 9:10 p.m., a fireman asked a friend to make a telephone call for him: “Tell ’em I ain’t going to be back for a while,” he said.
Snorkel trucks lifted firemen in “buckets” above the flames, visible as a red glow above, the building’s roof, and they directed their hoses down onto the building.
A table was set up on the university side of Nassau Street, and wives of the firemen served coffee — donated by the nearby Annex restaurant — and donuts to their husbands.
One of them, dripping with sweat and water, stopped by to take a break. “That place gone,” he said, waving his arm at Value Fair. “It’s just a matter of trying to save Allen’s and Hulit’s right now.”
A half block away, William Boozer, president of Princeton Savings and Loan Association, was not entirely sure that they would be able to keep the blaze from spreading.
Boozer stood guard outside his bank, at 130-132 Nassau Street, next door to Allen’s. He said there were major fire walls protecting his building, but turned its lights on and stood watch anyway.
It was unnecessary.
The fire companies — between seven and a dozen of them, according to various reports — brought the blaze under control about 11 p.m., after hosing down the adjacent buildings to keep the fire from spreading.
On the scene
Nonetheless, firemen remained on the scene well into the day on Thursday to douse the charred building and help clean up the mess.
The last bit of fire was put out at about 5 a.m., Princeton fire chief Shields said. The last firemen left at about 1 p.m. yesterday.
Shields said Value Fair was warned months ago for storing excess stock on staircases to the basement and an upstairs storeroom.
Although a follow-up inspection was scheduled for next week. Shields said the problem could not have contributed to starting a fire; it simply represented a hazard for people who would need to leave the store, quickly if, as on Wednesday, a blaze began.
The last major fire in Princeton began almost exactly two years ago, on January 20, 1977.