Midnight inferno guts townhouse

September 23, 1994

Midnight inferno guts townhouse

Four left homeless after candle sparks blaze

By Hank Kalet

Staff Writer

A townhouse fire that destroyed one unit and severely damaged two others on Sergeant Street in Princeton Borough was brought under control Thursday morning, but left one person hospitalized with burns and four others homeless.

The fire started when a lit candle apparently fell over and ignited a couch in the unit at 33 Sergeant St. just before midnight, borough Police Capt. Peter Hanley said.

Flames towered above the building and burst windows as the fire engulfed the townhouse unit, eyewitnesses said. The blaze was brought under control by firefighters at about 3 a.m. Thursday, said Princeton Fire Chief Benjamin “Roz” Warren.

The occupant of the unit where the fire started, Ken Gehner, 50, received burns to his arms, chest and face, Capt. Hanley said. He was taken to the Medical Center at Princeton by the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, where he was treated and released, he said.

Mr. Gehner was later readmitted to the hospital after he collapsed on Nassau Street at the corner of Palmer Square East at about 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Capt. Hanley said.

Hospital officials said he was in fair condition in the intensive care unit Thursday night.

The fire was contained to Mr. Gehner’s unit, but smoke and water damage to adjacent units on either side rendered them uninhabitable, Chief Warren said.

The residents of five other units also had to be evacuated for safety reasons, he said. They were allowed to return to their homes Thursday afternoon, after the building was declared structurally sound by borough engineers, said borough Building Inspector Martin Vogt.

Roofers were still working late Thursday, Supports also were being installed on the floors and walls in the charred unit, he said.

Nearly 100 firefighters from eight tire companies responded to the scene, Chief Warren said.

Princeton firefighter Stanislav Khvorikov dislocated his thumb when he fell against a railing, Chief Warren said. Two other Princeton firefighters received minor cuts, he said.

The fire appeared to be raging in full force by the time the fire department was notified, at 11:53 a.m., residents said.

Pam Hersh, who lives in one of the water-damaged units, said she was upstairs doing her laundry when she “heard what sounded like a fight” outside.

“There was glass breaking and loud noises, so I looked outside,” she said. “I saw what looked like a fireball.”

She said her son, Matt, called 911 while she ran outside and knocked on all the townhouse doors.

“Pam was instrumental in getting everyone out of the building,” said neighbor Pat Mayfield. “She was knocking on all the doors and getting everyone out. Then we were able to take a head count.”

Bernadette DeLamar, who lives in the other water-damaged unit, said she was awakened by an explosion.

“I felt the place shake and it sounded like someone was trying to break in the door,” she said. “Then I smelled smoke and called 911.”

Before leaving the apartment, she attempted to round up her two cats but was unable to locate them.

“Then about a half hour later, one of the firemen from Kingston came over to me with one of my cats in his arm,” she said.

She found the other cat in her townhouse at about 10:30 a.m. Thursday.

“We weren’t supposed to go inside, but I heard a meowing so I entered (the townhouse) and the cat was in the washing machine,” she said.

Susan Giroux, whose unit is on the other side of the eight-unit building, said she heard “glass breaking and banging.”

“Then I heard someone say they called 911 and I jumped up and looked out the window,” she said.

“I could see the flames. We immediately evacuated.”

Firefighters said they were fortunate to have contained the fire to the one unit.

“The flames were rolling out of all the windows when I arrived,” said Assistant Fire Chief Dave Bogle. “There was nothing left in there, nothing to be saved after the fire.”

Chief Warren said it appeared that the fire spread to the unit’s attic, burning the trusses and causing the roof of the unit to collapse.

“The firewalls saved the building,” he said. “They kept the fire from spreading and collapsing the rest of the roof.”

Several holes had to be cut in the roofs of other units to allow heat caused by the fire to escape so the roofs would not burst, he said.

Mr. Gehner probably opened a door and allowed air to get into the unit, Chief Warren said. That fed the fire with oxygen and gave it more strength, he said.

“That probably caused the windows to blow out,” he said. “There was so much fire and smoke that I couldn’t even see the windows. It was a sheet of flames.”

It was just the third general alarm fire this year, according to Chief Warren. When a general alarm is called, all three Princeton fire companies and the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad are required to respond.

Ms. Mayfield said that the firefighters did a “great job. They kept everybody calm.”

Ms. DeLamar agreed.

“The firefighters and the emergency people, they were just wonderful,” she said. “They moved so quickly.”

Residents were given free rooms Thursday morning at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Route 1 in West Windsor, a hotel employee confirmed Thursday.

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