26 January 1977
This is Princeton
(continued from page 1)
Ralph Hulit Sr., a veteran fireman, who watched his own show store gutted by fire in February, 1974, commented that the firemen had done a food job in keeping the flames from spreading right up Witherspoon.
Invaluable Assistance. “The response was terrific,” said Chief Krystaponis of the volunteer companies that raced to Princeton’s aid. He cited the merchants, the Rescue Squad Auxiliary and the Signal 22 canteen truck from Trenton for supplying the men with coffee, soup and sandwiches. The 18-degree weather caused icy conditions underfoot, but it did not affect the pumping. Still, fatigued firemen with ice-encrusted uniforms were a common sight.
A seven-year veteran who became Fire Chief in January, Chief Krystaponis was on the scene without a break for 20 hours. Then it was up again at 5 Saturday morning as the firemen had to keep returning to fight flare-ups and hot spots. “We couldn’t dig it apart for fear the walls would come down on us.” he said.
Borough Engineer George Olexa had spent Friday on the roof of Urken’s, keeping his eye on the walls. He found bent steel girders embedded in the common wall shared by Urken’s would have to be cut through by torches before the Witherspoon front wall could be leveled. The wall facing Spring was torn down to a safe level by cranes on Friday on Mr. Olexa’s orders as a safety precaution because it was leaning. The rear wall came down on Monday.
In the meantime, Witherspoon between Nassau and Spring Streets has been blacked off to traffic and will continue to be, Chief Carnevale said, until the building is declared safe. Ptl. William Hunter, who has been on duty at the location since the fire said on Monday, “I’m getting to hate the sight of Witherspoon Street.”
Repercussions of the biggest fire to strike the Princeton Community since Dillion Gym on the University Campus was burned out in 1944 will continue for weeks — see page 2 for initial details. Lawrence Benson Jr. said that no decision has been made about the property: whether to sell it as is or rebuild. The on-going police investigation continues; and Chief Krystaponis, who already has heard four general alarm fires sound in his brief stint as chief, wonders what else the harsh winter of 1977 has in store for him.
It was, said one onlooker, who watched awe-struck a half-block away, “like Dante’s Inferno.”
The greatest fire in the history of the Princeton business district, in the early hours of Friday morning, destroyed the 68-year old, three-story brick Benson Building on the corner of Witherspoon and Spring streets — an created total dislocation for the 15 businesses and stores it housed. No one was in the building when the fire was reported around 4 a.m.
Also destroyed was a smaller building on Spring Street, home of the Alderman Click insurance and real estate agency, when a wall of the Benson building collapsed on it. It was then gutted by flames that lept from the Benson inferno.
The Urken Supply Company, a hardware store at 27 Witherspoon, which shares a common wall with the Benson Building, has been declared unsafe and ordered closed by Borough Building Inspector Bernard Glover.
More than one spectator, viewing the gutted building with its twisted steel beams, and the tons of rubble and brick on Spring Street commented that the scene looked like the aftermath of war. No official estimates have been released but the loss is believed to be in excess of $1 million.
Started in Kitchen Area. “The fire started in the kitchen area of the Colonial Restaurant,” said Princeton Fire Chief Anthony J. Krystaponis Jr., “but the exact cause may never be known.”
Det. Charles Harris of the Arson Squad, heading the investigation for Borough police, concurred that the “hot spot” appears to have been the kitchen area of the restaurant. The counter is still there, he said, but the kitchen is gutted and burned out. The stove is laying in the cellar, he said.
Inability to enter the building unit it is declared safe has hampered the police and fire investigations.
An estimated 130 to 149 firemen from Princeton’s three volunteer companies and from six mutual aid companies (Slackwood, Kingston, Princeton Junction, Lawrenceville, Lawrenceville Road and Trenton) were able to contain the fire by 6:45 Friday morning. They were still extinguishing embers after 11, however, and had to be called back Friday evening and again during the weekend to fight flareups.
As late as Monday afternoon, when a 60-foot crane from Castro & Co. in Hopewell was tearing down a leaning wall in the rear which was threatening to collapse, wisps of smoke could be seen rising from the blackened rubble.
Three fires in 17 Years. The fire was the third in the Benson Building in 17 years. Most recent was a 1970 blaze in the Colonial Restaurant that required a $3,000 renovation.
Purchased 30 years ago by Lawrence Benson, who started his career in polling and market research under Dr. George Gallup, the building was a warren for other businesses. In addition to the Colonial Restaurant, other street-level firms on Witherspoon were Hill’s Market, a fourth-generation store founded in 1909, and the Welcome Aboard travel agency. On Spring Street were two art galleries, The Eye for Art, and Princeton Gallery of Fine Art and Alderman, Click.
Others: On Consignment, Just Hair, Crisp ‘N Clear Printing, all in the basement; the Robert M. Dilatusk 3d insurance office; Allscope, Inc., a motion picture and advertising firm; and Gibbs and Hill, the firm developing Princeton Ridge.
Mr. Benson’s market research firm occupied the third floor. He had sold his business a few years ago, and moved to Florida. His son, Lawrence Jr., 28, a tree surgeon in Ringoes, has his own small business office in the building which he said he had just painted.
“My father loved that building,” he said. “Some may think it funny that he didn’t come up, but I didn’t want him to see it.” “It’s disgusting,” he said, glancing at the gutted shell. “It’s like being skinned and then hung up for people to see.”
Victims in Shock. Several of the shop owners, Helen Benedict of Eye for Art, Van and Debra Blakeman of On Consignment, Van Ottinger of Just Hair and Bernard Polansky of Crisp ‘N Clear watched Monday as the crane nibbled away at a surviving wall. All expressed a desire to stay, to reopen their businesses as soon as possible. The major obstacle, they agreed, was finding available — and reasonable — space to relocate. Most said they were still in a state of shock.
The fire was discovered by Michael Wells and Robert Bernard, two Public Service workers who were at the intersection of Witherspoon and Spring, repairing a damaged wire leading to Gale Cleaners, across the street on Spring. At first, they thought it was an oil burner backfire. They radioed an alarm to the Public Service Electric and Gas dispatcher in Trenton, who relayed the alarm to Borough police at 4:08 a.m. At 4:10, a general alarm was sounded.
At 4:12, said police chief Michael Carnevale, the fire fire trucks were at the scene. At 4:15, Ptl. Monica Sheehan began calling owners of the various businesses. At 4:22, the Elizabethtown Water Company was called to increase its pressure. Meanwhile, police were erecting barricades and establishing detours but Chief Carnevale admitted that there “was one terrible mess when the usual morning traffic began.”
Bumper to Bumper. “We did the best we could,” he continued, “to notify drivers by radio to sty out of the central business district. Traffic was bumper to bumper on adjoining streets until noon time when Nassau was opened up again.
The spectacular blaze was visible — while it was still dark — from as far away as Blawenburg. Former Township Committeemen Abbot Low Moffat reported watching the fire for some time on Pheasant Hill Road and seeing a sudden giant cloud, perhaps of steam, when water from the fire hoses hit.
Other witnesses report flames leaping as high as the building itself and stretching from window openings halfway across Witherspoon. The intense heat buckled windows in stores on the opposite side of Spring.
Firemen sprayed water on nearby buildings to protect them. George Johnson of R.F. Johnson’s Electrical Supply on Tulane Street was on the roof, sweeping away hot embers.
Although the building was brick, Chief Krystaponis reported that it was an old type, “balloon construction” with no fire stops at all. Old tin ceilings kept firemen from the flames. “it kept spreading; there was no way to stop it.”
Police Enter the Building
Ptl. William Hunter and Det. Charles Harris of the police arson squad were able to enter the gutted shell of the Benson Building Tuesday morning.
Chief Michael Carnevale reported that the two investigators “may have uncovered some evidence that might pinpoint the location and possibly the cause of the fire.” He declined to elaborate.
Although the kitchen of the Colonial Restaurant is suspected as the origin of the fire Chief Carnevale reported that that the counter and furniture in the restaurant are still intact.
And the fire itself refuses to die. As recently as 2:50 Tuesday morning, Ptl. William Fitch and Ptl. David Alston had to request a fire truck at the scene to extinguish a flareup.