Arson victims horrified

2 March, 1990

Arson victims horrified

Wadsworth: ‘Thank God’ people got out

By Patti Wiesser
Staff Writer

Sadness over the destruction caused by Monday’s fire on Nassau Street turned into horror as victims of the blaze learned it had been set deliberately.

“They (the arsonists) could have taken human lives. They had to be gutless people to do something like that,” said Ray Wadsworth, whose gourmet bakery was destroyed. “Thank God those people who lived there got out.”

His sentiments were echoed by Tom Block, co-owner of Thomas Sweet Ice Cream c. es, which was also damaged by the blaze.

“It’s just disgusting. As upset as we are about the loss of our building and the loss of the complex, there could have been a loss of life.” said Mr. Block.

Mercer County Prosecutor Paul Koenig announced Wednesday that a preliminary investigation into the origin of the blaze eliminated accidental causes.

“We believe it is an arson fire,” said Mr. Koenig, adding the flames began in the American Diner kitchen.

He described the investigation as “difficult”, with factors such as the cold and ice as well as a mix of buildings further complicating it.

More than 30 specimens, which were not identified for publication, have been taken to the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) laboratory, said Mr. Koenig. ATF investigators joined borough police, Princeton fire officials and fire investigators from the county prosecutor’s office in the investigation.

The prosecutor said arrests “are not imminent” and no one has really been eliminated as a suspect. “There are some people whose activities we’re more interested in,” added Mr. Koenig.

The origin of the blaze, which also wiped out the American Cafe formerly known as the American Diner, caused an estimated 31.5 million in damages. The fire was still being investigated at press time. Zorba’s Grill is the only tenant in the group of buildings owned by Princeton University that apparently escaped the ravaging flames Monday. Zorba’s, a separate cinder block building, is behind the ice cream shop.

While Mr. Wadsworth lost one of his Princeton Borough businesses, another man lost his home.

“I was asleep,” recalled Mr. Tabler, who was in his apartment over Wadsworth’s Gourmet Bakery when the fire started. “The smoke woke me up and by the time I got out of bed, the smoke detectors were going off and the police were knocking at my door.”

Mr. Tabler said he also saw his upstairs neighbor, who was wearing a bathrobe and an overcoat, being evacuated. They were the only residential tenants inside the building at the time of the fire. A third, said Mr. Tabler, had just moved out earlier Sunday night.

News of the blaze reached Mr. Block and his partner, Stockton resident Tom Grim, when the ice cream store’s night manager called. ”

I picked up the other Tom … and we just never, ever expected the calamity that was there. We just assumed there’d be a small fire — an electrical problem,” remembered Mr. Block, who lives in New Hope.

When the two pulled up to the scene, they had hoped to see everything under control, he added. Instead, they encountered a slew of firefighters attempting to quell the flames engulfing the diner and the bakery.

“It definitely started in the diner and moved over,” said Mr. Block, who added that his business sustained heavy water damage while the others appeared to be demolished by the fire.

The proprietor of the ice cream store, who stood outside with his partner from 1:30 a.m. until noon Monday described the weather that dropped to 4 degrees as “brutal.”

“What a miserable morning,” he added, noting that he and his partner suffered some “pretty heavy losses” because of the fire.

Mr. Tabler said the only things he has left “are the clothes on my back” yet he expressed gratitude at being alive and unharmed by the flames.

Remarking on the responsiveness of authorities, he added, “Smoke detectors save lives … and I can’t say enough about the cooperation of the police and fire departments.

Mr. Tabler, who had Used in the apartment and fully furnished it — complete with three sets of dishes — since June, sought refuge Monday morning at his mother’s home nearby.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tabler, who works for DATS Incredible in New York City, continues to work out at the Princeton Fitness Center while he finds a new home, builds up a wardrobe and settles up with the phone, utilities and insurance companies.

Both Mr. Wadsworth and Mr. Block, who said they were determined to rebuild their popular Nassau Street establishments in Princeton Borough, specified 179 Nassau St. as the desired location.

“I just hope it can be recreated,” said Mr. Block of the 150-year-old buildings that housed the bakery and the ice cream store. “It’d be really sad if it can’t be salvaged or at least rebuilt.”

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