Police probe ‘suspicious’ fire

2 June, 1992

Police probe ‘suspicious’ fire

Merwick storage barn destroyed, hospital plans to rebuild

By Lylah M. Alphonse
Special Writer

Officials are investigating the possible “suspicious origins” of the fire that destroyed a turn-of-the century barn behind the Merwick House nursing home on Bayard Lane Friday afternoon.

“I found evidence that indicates it was possibly of suspicious origins,” said Princeton Borough Foe Official William Drake on Monday morning. He has since turned the investigation over to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.

Though he said he has determined where the fire originated, Mr. Drake would not disclose the information.

Only the brick chimney remained standing after the firefighters had extinguished the flames, which were fed in part by old paint and gasoline from inside the barn.

Flames shot 70 feet into the air with heat so intense that firefighters and their equipment were forced to move away from the fire, which was blistering the paint on the trucks, Princeton Fire Chief Joseph Meyers said.

No one was hint in the 1 p.m. fire, which singed trees and took firefighters from Lawrenceville and —three Princeton companies about an hour to pin out, Mr. Drake said. Princeton Junction and Kingston companies were standing by as well.

According to Jane Kerney, spokeswoman for the Medical Center at Princeton which operates the nursing home, nobody was inside the barn at the time. She said the barn was used strictly as a storage facility.

“It’s a garage, used to store loom equipment,” she said.

Also stored in the barn were 250 plastic garbage cans as well as cables and electrical poles for the 39th annual Hospital Fete, which is scheduled for June 13.

Dunking booths for the hospital fete reading “Make Me Wet” and “Dunk Me Baby” stood next to the smokey structure that by mid-afternoon Friday had been reduced to a pile of charred rubble.

Mr. Drake said that Merwick maintenance employee Peter Root had been inside the bam filling a laws mower with gasoline at about 12:50 p.m., but did not notice anything out of the ordinary.

Vance Liverman, a John Street resident, said, “I was one of the first here. I went out and the whole thing was on fire and I went, ‘Wow.’ ”

Mr. Liverman said he had heard a boom and his mother thought a house behind the barn was on fire. “I heard fire trucks, ran out and smelled smoke … By the time the firefighters got here the whole thing was on fire.”

John Street resident Samuel John-son added, “When I came out out it was too late. Fire was corning from everywhere … the fire was jumping out of everywhere.”

The Merwick nursing home had been cited for 65 fire code violations in April. The barn was not one of them. According to Mr. Drake, the barn had not been inspected at the time because he was concentrating on violations in “life-hazard” areas.

The wooden structure, which stood approximately 1,500 feet behind Merwick House on Bayard Lane, was “very old, very dry and open in-side,” said Joseph Meyers, chief of the Princeton Fire Department. He said that allowed the fire to burn it “like a match.”

Mr. Johnson said firefighters could not get enough water at first. Mr. Meyers agreed. He found that there was only 25 to 30 pounds of water pressure in the area— well below the normal 80 to 100 pounds. Mr. Meyers said the mains in that section of Princeton, which are older and smaller than those in other parts of the borough, are currently being up-graded by Elizabethtown Water Co.

Even if the water pressure had been normal, Mr. Meyers said they would not have been able to save the building.

“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said, adding the structure was already fully engulfed in flames by the time he arrived. The heat of the day also hampered the firefighters who, after a half-hour of working in the heat, had to be checked out by paramedics for fatigue and heat exhaustion before taking another turn at fighting the blaze.

YMCA employee Janet Montague alerted the police department about the fire. Noticing the smoke and flames from the YMCA parking lot on her way back from lunch “around 1 o’clock,” she called the police from the emergency phone behind the pool desk.

“I was surprised that no one had called before,” she said. “I’m glad I called when I did.”

Parts of the Merwick property date back to the 1700s. It was donated to the Medical Center at Princeton by the Matthew family in the 1950s. The barn, which stood approximately 1,000 to 1,500 feet from the house itself, was donated at the same time.

Despite the loss of fete paraphernalia, the fete will not be canceled, Mrs. Kerney said. “Fortunately, the stuff in there is very replaceable between now and June 13,” she said.

While Ms. Kerney said that it is still too early to estimate the amount of damage caused by the fire, the hospital does have plans to rebuild. “It’s going to be an expense,” she added.

“It’s unpleasant, but it’s not the greatest disaster,” she said. “It’s just sad.”

Staff photo by Mark Czajkowski

Fire rages Friday in the turn-of-the-century barn located behind the Merwick House nursing home on Bayard Lane.


BARN ABLAZE: This storage barn, located on the Merwick property off Bayard Lane, was consumed by flames just moments after an alarm was turned in Friday afternoon. Cause of the fire has been labeled suspicious.

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