PATERSON, N.J.-- Two fires left 39 people homeless and a mother and her two children reeling from smoke inhalation early Tuesday morning. A fire captain and a police officer were taken to an area hospital for minor injuries, authorities said.
The first fire, a general alarm blaze that cut through three apartment buildings on Main Street, left 21 people with only the clothes on their backs and destroyed a music store popular with Hispanic musicians.
Hours later, a mother and her two young children were taken to St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center for smoke inhalation after a second-floor apartment burned inside a 2-story house on Madison Avenue, Paterson Fire Chief Michael Postorino said.
A total of 11 adults and seven children were left homeless by that blaze, authorities said.
Juanita Green, who lived at 419 Main St., was asleep when police officers banged on her door to alert her to the fire at approximately 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday. The ring of new smoke alarms
"It was just a haze," said Green. "We had no choice in what to wear, what to do except run out. The only thing that woke us up was police officers yelling there was a fire."
The cause of the blaze is not known. No one was injured in the fire, which started at 415 Main St., then extended to two adjacent, three-story apartment buildings.
Authorities were initially looking for one occupant of an apartment building at 415 Main St., but a search proved negative, Deputy Fire Chief Ed Olszewski said. The cause of the blaze is still under investigation, he said.
Neighbors consoled each other as demolition equipment tore down the wreckage of what had earlier been their homes.
Among the neighbors were several area Latin American musicians who frequented Cidra Records at 417 Main St. Olszewski said the three buildings would be torn down.
Puerto Rican immigrant Manuel "Manolo" Ortiz, the owner of the music store and apartment building at 417 Main St., is well known among North Jersey Hispanic musicians for providing not only musical equipment and a place to jam, but helping musicians obtain gigs, said Atto Garcia, a bassist and Ortiz's friend.
"I lost everything," Ortiz said in Spanish to friends gathered around him. "My building is rubble."
The first blaze, requiring the attention of all of Paterson's fire 11 companies, took about seven hours to get under control, Olszewski said.
Firefighters got little relief before setting out to Madison Avenue between Main Street and Getty Avenue to fight a 10 a.m. blaze, which quickly went to two alarms.
The fire is believed to have started in the second-floor apartment at 1253 Madison Ave., where the woman lived with her children. Firefighters managed to keep the flames from spreading to the Damascus Gate restaurant next door, although the heat did melt some of the aluminum siding on the exterior wall, Postorino said.
Jaimie Arteagha, 51, was asleep in his attic apartment when the smoke alarm went off. Arteagha rushed out of the building through a back door.
Arteagha said the woman downstairs "has a lot of kids" and estimated that there were five or seven of them.
"The alarm woke me up and I got out of there," said Arteagha, who escaped from a rear door.
Postorino said firefighters had checked the building and determined that everyone had been accounted for. None of the 65 firefighters who battled the blaze were injured, he said. The fire was put out in about 30 minutes.
A small stretch of Madison Avenue was closed to traffic, but the fire didn't appear to have a major impact on traffic in the area. The Main and Slater streets fire, near the Passaic County Administration Building, forced the closure of Main Street for several hours. Parts of Main Street were still closed Tuesday afternoon.
Lydia Colon, 71, who lives in a beige paneled house behind the 415 Main St., said she was awake when the fire started at approximately 1:30 Tuesday morning.
"It was horrible," she said, pointing to the side of her house blackened by the fire. "Have you seen bombs exploding in Baghdad on television? It was worse than that."
Colon said the buildings' occupants ran out with nothing on. She brought some of them slippers for their bare feet.
"I never saw a fire going so fast in my life," she said.
Vanessa Santana cradled her baby while sitting on a ledge surrounding El Mundo Del Nino preschool with other victims of the Main Street blaze. Santana said she was home sleeping at the time. She said she hopes relatives will let her stay with them.
"It could have been worse," Garcia said. "Luckily, they live on a main road and a lot of people saw the fire and called police."
Green said Red Cross workers had given her and the five members of her family hotel vouchers to get temporarily accommodations. After demolition crews finished work at the scene, Green said she was able to get some of her belongings.
"We lost everything," she said. "There's no point in going back anymore."
Republished with permission of the North Jersey Media Group.