A five-alarm fire engulfed a warehouse that houses eight businesses in New Jersey early Wednesday, displacing residents from six nearby apartment buildings and shutting down roadways in the area as more than 100 firefighters from half a dozen counties battled the blaze.
The fire that would become an inferno at the 85-year-old warehouse sparked just before 2 a.m. on the 1600 block of Livingston Avenue in North Brunswick, sending plumes of black smoke into the air that were visible from space. The eight businesses housed in the structure are involved in plastics, floor coverings, car parts, car batteries and home furnishings, which fueled the blaze.
Officials said some residential buildings caught fire. One firefighter was slightly hurt fighting the blaze, but no other injuries were reported.
"All you heard was crackling, felt like it was a witch's cauldron just bubbling," displaced resident Monica Van Pelt said.
Van Pelt said as soon as she saw the fire, she called first responders and began loading up her van with as much of her belongings as she could.
“We filled up water bottles, filled up cooler jugs, rolled sleeping bags,” she said.
Firefighters decided to let the inferno burn out; the blaze was deemed under control by about 3 p.m., though firefighters were expected to be on the scene dealing with hot spots and clean-up for some time, Fire Chief Donald Salzmann said. Smoke, and in some spots, flames could be seen 20 hours after the fire broke out.
"It was unbelievable," said resident Regina Sawyer. "I've never seen anything like this."
The cause of the blaze was not known and the investigation would not begin until the flames were out.
The flames lit up the night sky, and the billowing thick smoke was visible on a weather satellite photo.
Residents of a nearby apartment building were ordered to leave after heat from the blaze set the siding on fire. Others were moved as a precaution over fears of potential toxins being released from the burning plastic.
“The lesson I learned from this is that you got to be prepared in life, you got to be prepared for the unexpected in life,” Sawyer said.
Some were able to go back to their apartments Tuesday night to grab some belongings, but they will be unable to return home until Thursday afternoon at the earliest.
“It was just like you were descending into hell," Van Pelt said. "It was black, sooty. It looked war torn."
Officials were monitoring air quality and would continue to check the smoke for any health threats, Dwayne Harrington of the Environmental Protection Administration said.
Officials had not detected any dangerous levels of toxins, Mayor Francis Womac III said.
The mayor recommended nearby residents stay inside and turn off their air conditioners as a precaution. Officials were helping residents with respiratory health problems move, if they were unable to do so.
Multiple agencies responded to the scene, including the Red Cross. A shelter for displaced residents has been established at Linwood Middle School; at least 110 residents checked in at the shelter and about 75 remained there Wednesday afternoon. Forty-four fire engines and 35 tankers operating as water shuttles from at least six nearby counties assisted.
The blaze affected traffic on Route 1, closing the ramp from northbound Route 1 to Livingston Avenue. The highway remained open, but delays were reported throughout the day due to fire operations. Parts of Livingston Avenue were also closed.