Residents Displaced in Edgewater Fire File Suit Against Apartment Complex Owner AvalonBay

The devastating fire was ruled an accident

The hundreds of families left homeless after their New Jersey luxury apartment complex was decimated in the quick-moving inferno across the Hudson River from Manhattan have filed a class action suit against the complex's owner, alleging negligence caused the devastating fire.

The Avalon on the Hudson complex in Edgewater was partially destroyed in the fire last Wednesday, initially displacing more than 1,000 people, including neighbors in nearby homes. Half of them have been allowed to return, but more than 500 people are permanently displaced.

Bruce Greenberg, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, alleged in the suit filed in Bergen County court Monday, "The construction maintenance and handling of the building was negligent and led to the tragic fire last week. We want to get proper compensation through whatever means is most expeditious and most complete." 

A spokesman for the complex owner, AvalonBay, had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

Charlie Shimojo, a friend of displaced tenant Satoshi Okumura, spoke for the family to NBC 4 New York: "We have two small insurance coverage claims, and we really need to get something from [AvalonBay], especially when it's caused by human error." 

In the meantime, says it will begin distributing its $75,000 in donations to affected residents as early as Friday.

"It's amazing how, after something like this, it makes you really realize what's important," said Sandy Rubenstein of EdgewaterStrong. "These people need a place to sleep, they need food on their table, and they need clothing on their back. So that's basically what we've set out to help with." 

The nonprofit organization is urging displaced residents to make sure they get a post office box or a new forwarding address as quickly as possible so they can receive the money. 

Authorities ruled the fire an accident, sparked when a plumbing repair made by maintenance workers ignited in the walls and consumed the building.

"There was nothing suspicious about it, and we have complete verification, and there's no doubt about it," said Edgewater Police Chief William Skidmore. "It's just a tragic accident."

Two sources involved in the response to the fire told NBC 4 New York the plumbers were not licensed. It is part of the ongoing investigation.  

Questions also linger over how the fire was able to spread so quickly. Edgewater Fire Chief Thomas Jacobson said he thought lightweight wood construction was a factor in how quickly the fire spread.

"If it was made out of concrete and cinderblock, we wouldn’t have this problem," he said. "But it’s lightweight construction with sprinklers, and this is the problem you face with this type of construction."

Michael Feigin, chief construction officer for AvalonBay, has said the wood frame construction of the complex is "a standard, common and safe construction method for multifamily housing used throughout the United States."

"The community was built in accordance with the fire and safety codes applicable at the time," he said in a previous statement. "The purpose of those codes is not to prevent the building from burning down, but rather to ensure that there is sufficient time and opportunity for all occupants to exit safely in the event of a fire."

Five hundred emergency responders from 35 towns responded to the call about the fire, which took all night last Wednesday and part of the day Thursday to control. Two firefighters and two civilians suffered minor injuries, which officials called miraculous considering the size of the fire. 

"With a fire of this scope and size, to have no loss of life and so many people displaced, we actually feel fortunate," said Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland.

The same apartment complex burned to the ground while under constructed in 2000. It was rebuilt featuring one-, two- and three-bedroom units designed to appeal to New York City commuters.

-- Brian Thompson contributed to this report. 

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