16 January 1980
Nassau Street blaze:
Clues to cause remain buried in fire’s rubble
by Michael Holcombe
Clues to the cause of last Wednesday’s fire that destroyed the Value Fair store and damaged several other shops on Nassau Street lie buried under the store’s caved in ceiling. The cause will remain a mystery at least until clean up is begun inside the burned out store, police and fire officials have said.
Although clean-up has already begun at the Hudibras, which sustained substantial water and smoke damage, there has been no indication by the owners to authorities as to when clean-up will begin in the gutted out Value Fair store where the fire is alleged to have begun.
Meanwhile, police and fire officials intend to continue their investigation into the cause of the blare in conjunction with Mercer County Fire Marshall John Lee. They say they will keep a watchful eye on cleanup attempts in hopes of finding clues presumably hidden under the ceiling of the Value Fair store which collapsed during the fire.
According to Borough Police Chief Michael Carnevale. the department’s arson squad began taking statements and initialing its investigation at about 10 p.m. on Wednesday night, more than an hour before the fire was brought under control. The chief did not say whether the investigation has yet turned up any evidence which could be labeled suspicious.
The task of Investigating a fire to determine its cause and then if it is a suspected case of arson, to pursue a conviction, is the most difficult of all police investigations, says Chief Carnevale.
The task of discovering the source of this fire, he adds, is difficult because all of the evidence is trapped in the basement. It is made more so due to the fact that Value Fair’s inventory included many possible accelerants — aerosol sprays, lighter fluids, charcoal and alcohol byproducts.
POLICE INVESTIGATORS will be returning to the scene, however, and the chief adds that some items have already been submitted to the state lab in connection with the investigation.
While investigators wait for the clean-up of the building, nearby merchants suffering smoke and/or water damage have either reopened or are completing clean-ups which will get them back in business.
The Hudibras restaurant, which shared a common wall with the Value Fair, suffered smoke and water damage, but very little damage from the flames which were contained in the front hallway.
According to Gordon Strauss, part owner of the building which houses the restaurant, clean-up has already begun but he is not sure at this point how long refurbishing of the premises will take.
The hardest hit retail establishment was Allen’s, a children’s clothing store located next to the Hudibras. According to Alan Abelson, one of the store’s three owners, Allen’s sustained no water damage although the store is now being cleaned and repainted in an attempt to get rid of the odor from the smoke. Mr. Abelson also said he plans to reopen Monday with a 50 to 75 percent-off clearance sale to try to move out the clothing which was in the store during the fire.
Hulit’s, the victim of a fire four years ago, suffered smoke and water damage and has since sold its damaged stock to a Philadelphia wholesaler. A member of the Hulit family has said the store will reopen in one or two weeks.
Police first received the report of a fire from Richard Borowski, owner of the Hudibras at 7:59 p.m. after a diner at the restaurant reported seeing smoke in the entrance hallway.
THE RESTAURANT was evacuated, and at 8:01 a general alarm was sounded. Suspecting the fire had begun in the Hudibras, firefighters who went directly to the scene and arrived before the equipment, entered through the back of the restaurant and left through the front, finding no fire. By this time flames had become visible in the Value Fair and were flaring up over the common wall into the rafters and down, according to Fire Chief William Shields, Jr.
Because there was no separation between the Hudibras and Allen’s and Value Fair and Hulit’s, Chief Shields immediately called in extra equipment, fearing even in the earlier stages that the fire could spread into the adjoining buildings.
Neighboring fire companies responded, including Princeton Junction, Plainsboro, Kingston, Rocky Hill, Lawrence Road, Lawrenceville, and of course, Princeton’s three fire companies — Hook and Ladder, Engine Co. No. One and Engine Co. No. Three.
In all, about 200 firefighters turned out to help battle the blaze,according to Chief Shields, some fighting at the fire and others reporting to the firehouses to be sure the remainder of the town had fire protection.
One of the reasons for the need for so many men was the freezing conditions which affected both the equipment and the firemen themselves.
FIREMEN UTILIZED every hydrant in a five block area and poured so many gallons of freezing water on the fire that twice calls had to be made to the Elizabethtown Water Co. to increase its water pressure.
But the stock in the Value Fair kept fueling the fire and firemen poured water on the walls separating the fire from Hulit’s and Allen’s in an attempt to contain the flame which by that time was through the roof.
It wasn’t until much later that firemen could enter the building to fight the fire. Early on, reports of fires in the basement and the thousands of gallons of water being pumped into the building, made entry unsafe.
In the meantime, firemen fought the blaze from aerial pieces. Once the floor was found to be sound, says Chief Shields, he sent men in with hoses and cut back on the water over top so small fires could flare up and be identified and subsequently extinguished by firefighters in the building.
Getting inside the building also allowed firemen to attack one area which could not be fought from the “snorkels,” a small office connected to Value Fair, which sits behind the Hudibras sign on Nassau Street. If the fire were to have spread past there it could have ignited the old bowling lanes which are still in existence on the second floor.
At a little after 11 p.m. the fire was under control, but firemen remained at the scene until 5 a.m. finishing the job. Some stayed even later.
Chief Shields said that the origin of the fire could pretty- much be pinpointed — in the rear of the Value Fair store on the first floor. But because of the condition of the building an investigation will be both difficult and lengthy. The chief points out that questions are still being asked and reports still being filed in connection with the Benson Building fire which occurred two years ago.