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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bad news from Cortland Street

Just a short while back, I wrote with deep nostalgia about the street on which I grew up -- Cortland Street in the "Down Neck" (Ironbound) section of Newark. My former neighbor, Mike Dobrzelecki, sent along some great photos and a wonderful recap of where things stood on the street nowadays.

This afternoon, I got an update and some more pictures from Mike. And they are sad -- beyond sad, really. He writes:

Early this past week a fire devastated 3 houses in the middle of the block on Cortland Street, a densely populated block in the Ironbound District of Newark, New Jersey. The fire started at 26 Cortland St. on Monday 3/10/08 at about 3 in the afternoon. It did not take long for the house to be fully involved. Mother Nature played a hand that day with winds whipping through the Ironbound District. With the houses separated only by narrow alleyways, the fire spread swiftly to the 1860's era structures on either side -- 24 and 28 Cortland Street. Flying embers wafted over to Lentz Avenue, two blocks away, alighting on a couple of roofs, with one roof being heavily damaged in the process.

The closest firehouse on Ferry Street, a mere 1½ blocks away, responded within 5-10 minutes, but the fire soon went to 3 alarms involving 75 - 80 firefighters. The Newark firemen soon found another gremlin hampering their effort -- the fire hydrant right across the street was defective -- with much less than the required 1000 GPM water pressure available -- a legacy of neglect by the Newark City water authority come home to roost. My brother, Dan Dobrzelecki, recently retired from the Newark Fire Department, checked with his old buddies and related that Newark's Bravest had their hands full that day. No less than 4 other fires were raging in the city at the same time and the Fire Departments of Jersey City, Elizabeth and Irvington were put on notice that they may need back-up if it got any worse. Residents along the block were rousted from their homes in the interest of safety. Other homes on the street suffered smoke damage; 22 Cortland Street had some of its vinyl siding partially melted in the process.

By the time the Newark Fire Department arrived, the 3 houses on Cortland Street were a total loss, with damage extending to other houses on the block and even two streets away. The Newark Fire Department immediately classified the fire suspicious. The house went up too quickly, even given the high winds that day. 26 Cortland Street had a checkered history of late, with the house changing hands several times over the last few years. The house was unoccupied, and the current owner allegedly about to be subject to foreclosure proceedings. The Newark Fire Department Arson Squad is currently investigating this fire.

By the grace of God, no one was killed or injured. I guess that's something to be thankful for. The families living on either side lost everything in the fires. Betty Fernandez, a woman in her 80's and longtime Ironbound resident living at 24 Cortland Street, was on vacation the week before, and came home the day of the fire to find her home and everything in it gone -- her life erased in an afternoon. She was, understandably, in a state of shock. The Wladyga family, also living in the same 24 Cortland Street, were rendered homeless, as were the families living in 28 Cortland Street to the right. Within a day, the City of Newark declared all 3 structures to be uninhabitable and ordered demolition to begin. 26 Cortland Street, the origin of the fire, was a pile of rubble by Thursday, March 13, courtesy of giant fully tracked yellow Caterpillar Backhoe. 24 and 28 would soon meet the same fate.

Even though I have not lived there since 1975, I return to my old neighborhood and the city of my birth on a regular basis. It was a shock to see the heart cut out of my old block. My family's original house, just two doors away at 20 Cortland Street, was spared the worse effects of the fire, but I bet it was subject to smoke damage to some degree. If this turns out to be a case of arson, that would be horrible. It's bad enough to torch your own property, when you're in financial difficulty, but to have it spread to and destroy other peoples' homes, just for personal monetary gain, is unconscionable.

God help Betty (that was her apartment on the top floor in the photo above), whose living room provided a wonderful rehearsal studio for her son Joey and me when we were doing a capella versions of Beach Boy numbers like "All Summer Long" back in the early 1960s. And everybody else who was displaced.

UPDATE, 5/11/09, 2:35 a.m.: Photos and videos of the blaze in progress are linked to here.

Comments (6)

Really sad, that. I'm glad no one was injured.

There is at least one surveillance cam on the Hawkins Street School on the other side of Cortland Street. I wonder if they can shed any light on the origin of the fire.

Can they complete an arson investigation in only three days?
Fire: March 10
Demolition: March 13

Here's an update on the fire and some responses to the comments for same.I finallly got the Star Ledger article on the fire, which confirmed most of the comments I had picked up from various sources, especially my brother, Dan, a former Newark Fire-fighter. It appears that two people were hurt in the fire and 5 houses total burned - 4 on Cortland and the one on Lentz Ave, whch had its roof catch fire. I'm assuming that the 4th house on the street is 22 Cortland, which did have melted vinyl siding. The two people injured were one of Newark's Bravest, who received some bruised ribs and a pregnant woman who was treated for smoke inhalation - it could been alot worse. Both were released from the hospital.

The arson squad apparently completed their investigation, but 26 Cortland had to be torn down right away as it posed an immediate hazard of collapsing.


My name is Chris Simmons and I lived at 26 Cortland Street, 3rd floor and was not at home when the blaze erupted. I am a disabled and left the building at 1:15 that day to check on a new apartment and came back to the house at 4:30 to find nothing but disaster. I found my house on ablase on fire 1 of three houses burning and it is completely burned down. I have lost everything all clothes, medications, legal, medical and educational / research / patent application papers & books any and all information relating to my SSA appeals, MWD TRA emergency assistance paperwork school application and 3 computers, college diploma, birth certificates everything. and many things that I have not taken inventory of as yet.

Presently I am completely devestated

At first glance the arson investigator has said the fire started in the basement and detroyed my house and the ones on both side of it 9 floors in total and 18 persons several children burned out and several fire fighters hurt and the tv cameras and news people are hear

I lost everything but the lord spared my life thank everyone on my be half for their prayers

A reader writes:

My name is Gina, my family and I arrived from Italy in 1966 and my parents purchase 26 Courtland Street. My sister, brothers and I grew up in this house. I moved out in 1981 I moved out and every now and then I visit the neighborhood . Yesterday, August 29, 2009 I drove again with my brother Ernie, who is in the US for a few weeks and we were both devastated to learn that the house we grew up in wasn’t there anymore. When I got home, I Googled 26 Cortland Street and learn of the destruction. I am really heartbroken, we have lots a great memories in the house. I’m thankful that on one got hurt.

Gina Mungioli-Latham

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