The quick-moving inferno that ravaged part of a luxury apartment complex in New Jersey has been determined to be "totally accidental," sparked when a plumbing repair made by maintenance workers ignited in the walls and spread through the building, officials said Thursday.
"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."
Still, questions 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.
The blaze at the Avalon on the Hudson complex in Edgewater took more than 15 hours to contain after it broke out Wednesday evening. By Thursday morning, more than 200 of the 408 units in the complex were reduced to rubble. About 500 people who lived in the complex are permanently displaced, and another 500 in buildings affected by the fire at the complex had to temporarily leave their homes, authorities said.
Gov. Christie visited the fire scene and met with displaced residents Thursday as a local state of emergency remained in place, keeping schools closed and some roads restricted into Friday.
Residents of the 151 units that did not burn down at the complex will likely be able to move back into their apartments as early as Monday, an official involved in the response told NBC 4 New York.
Five hundred emergency responders from 35 towns responded to the call. Two firefighters and two civilians had 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.
An initial fire broke out at about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday and the complex was quickly evacuated. After firefighters responded, the fire appeared to be under control for some time, but it escalated in a hard-to-access area in the back part of the complex.
Building employees told residents during the evacuation that the fire didn't seem serious.
"'Small electrical fire, not a big deal, we got it under control,'" Arthur Venetis recalled a worker telling him. "'Go grab a piece of pizza, you guys will be back in an hour or so.'"
"We were feeling better that it was going to be OK and then the trucks kept coming, and the trucks kept coming," said resident Jill Miller.
The fire drew a massive emergency response, with departments from Hudson, Bergen and Union counties responding. The FDNY and Jersey City's fire department also responded with fireboats, helping to draw water from the Hudson River, officials said.
Edgewater Fire Chief Thomas Jacobson said Thursday 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?"
Christie 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.
Resident Scott Isaacson isn't sure if his apartment was one of the units destroyed in the fire. He and his wife stayed with relatives Wednesday night.
"Both of us are OK, that's the most important thing," he said. "Material things you can replace, people you can't."
Many displaced residents were sheltered Wednesday night at a local community center with the help of the Office of Emergency Management and Red Cross, according to the mayor. Others stayed with relatives and at local hotels. The New Jersey Apartment Association was also offering apartments in the area to displaced residents.
"We left in what we had," displaced resident Tamara Talbott said. "We got the kids and the dogs. Our cars are all underneath. There's nothing left."
Seongju Won was at work when the fire broke out and never had a chance to salvage any belongings.
"All I have is this. This is it. This is only what I have right now, my clothes, my purse," said Won.
Heather Jackson got home just in time to save her 7-year-old Daschund, Brinkley, but everything else was a complete loss.
"Our apartment is completely gone, we were on the top floor," she said. "We stayed in a hotel last night. Our insurance company got in touch with us today, so we're here to see what the next steps are."
The New York Post reports Yankees announcer John Sterling was among those displaced by the fire.
Displaced neighbors who live near the complex also struggled to find lodging. One woman, Sonya, is on a fixed income and she said Red Cross could not guaranteee payment for a hotel stay, even if she could find one that would take her service dog. They ended up staying the night in her car.
"Right now the priority is the Avalon tenants themselves, and you know what, I understand that," she said. "Our building is still standing, but we still need a place to stay."
Local businesses were trying to help Thursday. Norma Almanza, owner of the Mr. Bagelsworth deli across the street from the Avalon, delivered 10 dozen bagels to the shelter.
"These are our neighbors," she said. "Some of them are regulars, some we see on the weekends. We wanted to do the neighborly thing."
"There were a lot of familiar faces," added Alex Almanza. "It's an extremely sad situation, especially all the kids."
Verizon dispatched trucks to the area to provide Internet access and charging stations.
Residents were still stunned as they wondered how a fire could spread so quickly.
"For all the fire doors and things we have in the building, I'm shocked that it would go from something small to something like this," resident Talbott said.
Stacey Lubetsky said Thursday, "People were in shock and just devastated. You never expect anything like this to happen. You're in the middle of it. It's like a bad dream."
Edgewater Mayor McPartland announced a website has been set up for the victims of the fire at gofundme.com/edgewater-fire. It is the only official donation site for the victims.
The same apartment complex burned to the ground while it was being constructed in 2000. It was rebuilt featuring one-, two- and three-bedroom units designed to appeal to New York City commuters.