16 January 1979
Cause of Value Fair Fire Still Sought; 3 Other Businesses Remain Closed
Police arson investigators and fire officials are still seeking the cause of last week’s spectacular fire which destroyed one business and damaged four others – Princeton’s biggest since the Benson Building on Witherspoon Street was gutted on January 20, 1977.
Value Fair, 138 Nassau Street, where the fire started, has been destroyed, its interior a charred ruin. A week later, Hulit’s Shoes, 140 Nassau, and Allen’s, 134 Nassau, remain closed. The owners for each said they will open as soon as possible but could not estimate a date. Both suffered smoke and water damage.
The Hudibras Restaurant. 138 Nassau, next door to Value Fair, sustained extensive water and smoke damage. Owner Richard Borowsky hopes to reopen some time next month. He said repairs will take six weeks and estimated damage at $100,000. Structural damage was confined to a long hallway leading from Nassau Street to the lounge.
Nassau Hobby, 142 Nassau, sustained smoke damage and water in the basement but was open for business next morning. Owner Hoge Woolwine estimated his damage at $10,000.
Borough Fire Chief William Shields has said that total damages from the fire could amount to $200,000.
Some 140 firemen from nine companies fought the blaze in 26 degree temperature. The conflagration was brought under control about 11 p.m. – some three hours after a general alarm was sounded at 8:01 last Wednesday evening.
Two persons were injured. Fireman Michael Perna sustained a laceration over his right eye and Michael Carnevale 2d, the 22-year old son of the Borough police chief Michael Carnevale and a member of the First Aid and Rescue Squad, dislocated his shoulder. Both were treated at Princeton Medical Center and released.
Residents of two apartments above Hulit’s shoe store were evacuated but allowed to return on Thursday. At the Hudibras, where smoke from the fire was first detected, some 50 diners were led out a rear door after an announcement over the restaurant intercom. There was no panic; diners were still not aware of the magnitude of the fire.
Police evacuated nearby Garden Theatre at 8:42.
Hulit’s, which was burned out in 1974, and Allen’s were spared because of fire walls that held and because firemen were able to pump torrents of water on the buildings from pumpers.
“We still have walls, we still have a building. We want to open as soon as possible.” said Alan Abelson of Allen’s. “Allen’s is still functioning.”
He reported that inside walls were black from the heat of the fire. “Luckily, they held.”
Value Fair owner Joseph Parvin of West Windsor.. who had been visiting his father in Brooklyn when the fire broke out, walked around in a daze the next morning as he surveyed the ruins. “I’m in a total state of confusion.” he said.
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“I feel weary…the weight of responsibility. How am I going to provide for my family?” Because he does not own the building-it is the property of the estate of Harry Farr, whose hardware store was a longtime Princeton institution-Mr. Parvin commented, “I don’t have any options.”
Inspection Pending. The fire came about a week before Borough officials were to have reinspected Value Fair to see if fire violations for which it reportedly had been cited had been eliminated.
Ted Kopp, Fire Chief last year when the violations were noted, confirmed that Value Fair had been cited, but commented that “a lot of them had to do with public safety as opposed to fire hazards.”
Aisles and stairways were blocked with merchandise, he said, and there was a lot of trash in the basement – “some of it entirely too close to the furnace in my opinion” – but Mr. Kopp and assistant Fire Chief Ralph Hulit Jr. both stated they felt the alleged violations had nothing to do with the start of the fire.
As Mr. Hulit, together with Det. Charles Harris and Ptl. William Hunter of the police arson squad and Mercer County Fire Marshall John Lee stood inside the devastated Value Fair Thursday morning, Mr. Hulit said, “We’re studying it but there’s not much left to study. It’s going to be tough.”
Chief Carnevale said this week, however, that investigators have pinpointed the origin of the fire as starting on the first floor of Value Fair. Whether it began on the top of the floor, or the top of the basement ceiling, he said, has not been determined.
The building’s ceiling collapsed around 1 a.m. and investigators say much of the evidence is still buried under debris. “A fire of this type is the most difficult to investigate and the most difficult to reach a conclusion about,” said Chief Carnevale. Some items, he said, have already been sent to a police lab.
1,000 Watch. An estimated crowd of 1,000 onlookers watched from the knoll in front of Firestone Library across the street while firemen fought the blaze. Flames spilled from front windows and shot up 20 feet through the roof of the two- story brick building. Snorkel units towered over the flaming building as firefighters poured streams of water on the adjacent stores, trying to keep the flames from spreading.
Two firemen had to be plucked from the roof by a snorkel unit. “That was a lot rougher than a lot of people suspected,” said fireman Irv Urken. “We nearly lost a couple of people.”
Water got into his boots and froze, he said, making cracking noises as he walked. “My feet were numb for hours,” he said. He stayed until 3 a.m. Some firemen remained at the scene all night. All equipment with the exception of Engine Co. No. 3 had left the scene by 5 a.m.
Police called Elizabethtown Water Company at 8:10 and again at 8:42 to increase water pressure. The police desk officers. Plt. Glenn Stanton and Officer Donald Dawson, were kept busy calling fire companies in Lawrence, Kingston, Plainsboro, Slackwood and Princeton Junction to send equipment to the scene. George Clausen, superintendent of streets, was called at 8:21 and told to barricade the area from Palmer Square to Washington Road and begin sanding streets which were slick with ice.
Nassau Fuel Oil was called at 10:23 to supply diesel fuel but a call to a Princeton fuel distributor at 10:36 to supply regular gasoline to the fire trucks could not be fulfilled. The gasoline was supplied by a Trenton fire company.
Mystery Fire. Mean as it was, it was hard to find at first. Firemen first to arrive did not know where to go, although Nassau Street was filling-with smoke. Firemen scurried through the Hudibras where the alarm had first been sounded and finally
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located flames next door at Value Fair.
Value Fair manager Hal Duchin said later that he and stockboy Don Rickert had closed the store at 7:58. “I remember looking at my watch,” he said.
At 7:50, as was his nightly custom, Duchin said he told Rickert to go down to the basement and check the lights and see if everything was all right.
He added that there were customers in the store until closing and none noticed anything amiss. ‘‘I smelled nothing; I saw nothing,” he said. ‘‘I left the store in perfect order.”
Duchin had walked one block toward his car, when he noticed fire engines coming up Nassau. He still thought nothing of it and continued on to his car, got in and drove to his home in Cranbury. He was later called by police when they were unable to reach Mr. Parvin.