‘Inferno’ in Princeton Township traced to laundry room heater

3 March, 1992 (~estimated)

‘Inferno’ in Princeton Township traced to laundry room heater

By Laurie Lynn Strasser
Staff Writer

Princeton fire officials said Thursday that a fire at 302 Hartley Ave. earlier this week was caused when clothing next to a heater in the laundry room ignited.

The fire occurred at the home of Princeton University astrophysicist Shoichi Yoshikawa, who arrived home for a late lunch Tuesday afternoon to find his Princeton Township, ranch house in flames.

His wife, Elinor, was inside when it started, but she escaped to safety.

“This was an inferno,” said a neighbor who saw flames shooting out of the house. “My poodle got hysterical. She must have sensed it. That’s what made me look out the window. I also heard an explosion. It sounded like someone was shooting over Carnegie Lake. You just don’t hear sounds like that.”

Investigators believe the fire originated around a gas heater in the laundry room, where Mrs. Yoshikawa told them she found a wooden clothes rack and a plastic basket burning.

She said she heard the smoke detector go off and went to search for the fire. “I smelled a little smoke in one room,” she said. “Once I got into the hallway, I saw the laundry room and the heater on fire.”

She tried to extinguish the flames herself until she realized it was futile to do so.

“I got a 2-gallon orange juice bottle and poured water on the fire,” she said. “It was the largest container I could find. When I saw it wasn’t working, I called the fire department from the kitchen. I wanted to put more water on it but they told me to stay on the phone and tell them my address. When they had the information, I left the house.”

Mr. Yoshikawa was just relieved that his wife was safe.

“I was working at the Princeton Plasma Physics lab,” he said. “After a long meeting in the morn-ing, I was tired and decided to come home for lunch. As I rounded the corner I saw brown smoke. The police were already there by that time.”

Princeton’s three fire companies and one from Kingston sent trucks, and two ambulances rushed to the scene at 2:21 p.m. They blocked traffic from Harrison Street and quenched the fire within 15 minutes.

Ray Bianco, deputy chief of the Princeton Fire Department, was the first firefighter to arrive.

“When I first pulled up all I could see was a lot of smoke pouring out of the side windows,” he said.

Armed with a pair of fire hoses, six men “knocked down the fire tight away,” he said.

Though the flames were contained to the laundry room, corridor and a walk-in closet, the entire house sustained heavy smoke dam-age, he said.

Afterward, Mrs. Yoshikawa stood in the afternoon sunshine with a purple bathrobe thrown over her clothes, staring stunned at the blackened interior of what was her home.

“We lost everything of value to us, but we have our lives, and that’s what’s important,” she said.

The fire claimed six months worth of work on a book her husband is writing. “Everything was in notebooks and I didn’t expect a fire so I didn’t make any copies,” he said. “They were left on the living room table.

“My clothes completely burned,” he added. “They were in a closet in the hall. I was impressed at how much burned.” Blaming an imperfect command of English, he amended that to “surprised.”

Dr. Yoshikawa has lifetime rights to the house where he has lived since 1965, though it is owned and maintained by Princeton University.

“We’re going to board it up as soon as everyone’s out of the way,” said Jack Stryker, head of architectural trades for the university.

No damage estimate is yet available, but the house is insured, he said.

“I guess we’ll look for some hotel,” Dr. Yoshikawa said. “It would still be too much of a shock to stay here.”

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