New Jersey Firefighters Exonerated In Fatal Blaze

A state investigation has found no fault with Teaneck firefighters' search of a home where flames and smoke claimed the lives of four children hours later.

"The Teaneck Fire Department conducted a diligent investigation" during that initial search, according to Wednesday's report by the state Division of Fire Safety.

Firefighters were called to the Seidenfeld home on Rutland Avenue at 8:30 p.m. last March 21 to respond to a smell of smoke and an explosion. Six firefighters searched the Tudor-style house for about 30 minutes. They detected a faulty boiler but found no reason to evacuate Philyss Seidenfeld, her housekeeper or the six of Seidenfeld's seven children who were home at the time.

Five hours later, a fire tore though the house, killing four of the children, ages 4 to 15. Investigators traced the blaze to an overloaded circuit in a basement freezer across the room from the boiler.

A fire union official said the department was pleased by the long-awaited findings but that it did not lessen the tragedy in the wee hours of March 22.

"We're happy that the report exonerates the Fire Department," said Richard Burchell, vice president of the Firemen's Mutual Benevolent Association. "It confirms our belief that they were two separate, unrelated instances. That doesn't lessen the sadness of the loss of the children."

The township had requested the report.

The lawyer for the Seidenfeld family dismissed the investigation as "a whitewash."

"It doesn't pass the smell test," said the attorney, David Jaroslawicz. "Why does it take a year to write a simple report?"

He said firefighters should have returned to the house at some point that night to double-check that everything was OK. He also said firefighters should have made sure the house had working smoke detectors. The report concluded that the house did not have enough working detectors.

"They can't possibly justify not coming back and not making sure there were smoke detectors in the house," Jaroslawicz said.

The lawyer said the family hired its own fire experts who came to different conclusions, but he would not elaborate. Jaroslawicz said he plans to file suit in the coming months. The family has already filed a notice of intent to sue the township.

Firefighters responding to the first alarm "examined all areas of the basement before turning their attention to the oil burner, based on the information they had received and the physical evidence," the report said.

The firefighters found that the reported loud noise and smoke likely came from the boiler, which had experienced a "blowback," defined as "an accumulation of vaporized fuel oil in the combustion chamber that suddenly ignites."

The firefighters found multiple problems with the boiler, including closed water valves and a low water level, according to the report. They advised Philyss Seidenfeld to have the boiler serviced as soon as possible, the report said.

Investigators were "unable to determine if the [freezer] condition was present during the first incident, or if it was merely a tragic coincidence that two separate problems occurred within hours of each other," said the report.

Officials mum

The mayor, Township Council members and the fire chief said Wednesday that they were told not to comment on the report for legal reasons.

Fire Chief John Bauer would say only, "We're glad the report is here." Bauer said last week that he believed the report would exonerate his men and lift the cloud over the department.

Over the past year, Bauer said, his firefighters have received nasty letters and comments blaming them for the children's deaths. Former Councilman Michael Gallucci resigned in January amid controversy after he said on an Internet forum that the department's negligence led to the fire.

Mayor Jacqueline Kates said last week that she thought the Fire Department would be vindicated.

The yearlong investigation was the culmination of interviews with firefighters, police and neighbors who responded to, or witnessed, the fire, and an analysis of dispatch reports and Fire Department standard operating guidelines.

The report also addresses whether firefighters acted properly by not using a thermal-imaging camera to detect hot spots in the basement on their first visit to the home. The device can reveal otherwise undetectable smoke and fire burning inside walls by measuring temperature changes.

Township fire officials had said firefighters did not use the camera because they did not smell smoke, and that the camera would not have detected the overloaded freezer motor because of the heavy insulation that surrounds it.

The state report supports that position.

"They reported that conditions were completely normal," the report said. "It was for these reasons that they did not employ the use of the [camera]. ... The thermal-imaging camera would not have been an effective tool in locating this overheated fan motor, if it was in fact overheating at the time of the first incident."

A 'thorough' probe

Township officials had expressed frustration that it took the state nearly a year to release the 19-page report. A state spokesman defended the fire safety division's work.

"The department was charged with a very serious and important task," said Sean Darcy, the spokesman. "We were asked to do a thorough investigation and that's exactly what we did."

The report also notes several obstacles that may have slowed the family's response to the fire and hampered firefighters.

"A major issue was the lack of an adequate number of operational and/or properly placed smoke detectors," the report said. "A working smoke detector in the area of the fire origin could have provided early warning to the occupants allowing precious time for escape."

The three-story house had two working smoke detectors the night of the fire, on the first and third floors. There was no battery in the smoke detector in the basement, where the fire started, the report said. The home's early-1900s "balloon" structure sped the flames.

After the blaze, the Fire Department began requiring firefighters who observe deficiencies regarding smoke detectors during visits to homes to report the problems to the Fire Prevention Bureau, which would then inspect the detectors and install batteries or replace the detectors.

Some departments carry smoke detectors with their fire apparatus and install them immediately during calls to homes without the devices.

Windows obstructed by furniture and air conditioners also slowed firefighters' access to the upper floors. Two of the children who died were found in an upstairs bathroom, and the other two in the attic.

The report commended the quick action of neighbors, saying they "contributed significantly to the rescue of two children" before first responders arrived.