Neighbors Allowed to Return Home After Inferno Devastates Edgewater Apartment Complex

The devastating fire was ruled an accident

Just two days after quick-moving inferno decimated part of a luxury apartment complex in New Jersey, power has been restored, roads are reopened and some neighbors are being allowed back into their homes, officials announced Friday. 

"The good news is that we have started the process of allowing people to get their lives back together and turning toward normalcy," said county executive James Tedesco.

Tedesco said power has been restored to the entire area of Edgewater not affected by the fire at the Avalon on the Hudson complex. The nearly 90 residents of an affordable housing complex nearby and the 120 people who who live in other homes close to the complex will be allowed to return Friday, officials said, confirming what NBC 4 New York first reported.

It's not clear when residents of the 150 units at the complex not affected by the fire would be allowed to return. The fire scene and a building were still being secured, and fencing was being put up. Officials said no vehicles were damaged in the fire, and they have been taken out to be recovered by their owners.

Schools will also reopen Monday after two days of being closed under a state of emergency.  

Air quality tests by Bergen County health officials have shown no harmful results in the entire block, officials said. 

More than 250 units at the Avalon on the Hudson complex in Edgewater were destroyed by the Wednesday night blaze that took firefighters more than 15 hours to get under control, leaving about 500 people homeless. NBC 4 New York has learned AvalonBay will give $1,000 in cash to the tenants in those apartments to help them get through the transition.

Mayor Michael McPartland said the community has been "overwhelmed" with generosity from the public, and is asking that people no longer drop off physical donations and instead contribute to the official fundraising site at GoFundMe, which amassed tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of hours. 

The New Jersey Apartment Association has also organized a list of vacant apartments that are immediately available for displaced residents, many with discounted rates. 

"It's been a trying a couple of days. I'm just so proud of everyone," said McPartland. "In a terrible tragedy what I see coming out of it is the people of Edgewater coming together as a prideful town and everybody stepping up to the plate." 

Vijay Sankar, who lives across the street from the Avalon complex, was happy to return home Friday night, even as he found charred embers from the fire resting on his house. He had watched the entire block of apartments go up in flames. 

"I was super anxious, even though I'm covered with insurance," he said. "It's my whole life, my whole everything here." 

On Thursday, authorities announced that the fire had been ruled 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 and thoroughly as hundreds of displaced residents try to cope with the devastating loss of their homes and belongings.

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, the owner of the building complex, confirmed in a statement the buildings were built using wood frame construction, which he said was "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 added. "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."

"We are grateful that everyone at Avalon at Edgewater was able to leave the building and get to safety without serious injury," said Feigin.

Assemblyman John Wisnewski, chair of the New Jersey's Fire Safety Commission, said the building's sprinklers were working and appeared to be up to code, though some parts of the buildings didn't have sprinklers.

"This, I'm told, was a system designed to give people time to get out but not necessarily preserve the structure," he said. "We have to ask the question, should it have been a more robust system?"

Gov. Christie, who visited the site and met with displaced residents Thursday, said the state's Department of Community Affairs is conducting its own investigation into whether the building met all the safety codes, and if so, whether it would make sense to talk about updating and changing the codes.

Five hundred emergency responders from 35 towns responded to the call about the fire Wednesday. An initial fire broke out around 4:30 p.m. and the complex was quickly evacuated. Firefighters appeared to have the blaze under control for some time, but it escalated in a hard-to-access area in the back part of the complex, hampering firefighters' ability to effectively fight the flames.

Two firefighters and two civilians suffered minor injuries, which officials called miraculous considering the size of the fire. All residents and emergency personnel were accounted for.

"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.

Some pets likely perished in the blaze, he said. 

The large Avalon on the Hudson apartment complex, located by the Hudson River across from Manhattan, is across the street from the Edgewater post office, and is located across a shopping complex that contains a Trader Joe's supermarket.

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.

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