Chapter seven: The Great Dundee Fire
On Sept. 2, 1985, I was coming back from a picnic at Lake Hopatcong when I saw the huge gray column of smoke rising from the direction of Passaic. A chill struck me as I drove because every twist and turn along the road seem to point toward my neighborhood and the column of smoke.
Over the next 12 hours, I would watch firefighters struggle to contain the flames, battling for every inch of that neighborhood as the blaze devoured a substantial chunk of Passaic's industrial base. Building after building fell to the attack, sparks spreading the fire across rooftops despite the efforts of 50 fire companies to contain it.
Labor Day and Passaic was burning. Flames licked from the tips of the world around me, and for a while leaped from roof top to roof top headed straight for the building in which I lived. Some flames leaped so high I thought the sky itself on fire. But the real battle was on the ground, where fire trucks from dozens of towns set up battle lines, hoping to beat back the attack.
I read the names off the side of each: Passaic, Garfield, Carlstat, Little Falls, Wallington, Lodi, even Secaucus. And from each hurried anxious men dressed in heavy gear, some bearing axes with which to cut at the burning wood, hundreds of small Davids against the only abominable flaming Golieth.
From the rail road tracks up the street, I saw with many of the other displaced or curious residents, watching in awe as the fire spread from the factory where it started to the the paper mill and then to the most terrible target of all: a wall paper factory from which flames vomited with such fury, each of us cringed.
The fire reportedly started hours earlier when the transformers near the paint factory created a spark that set the first of many buildings ablaze. (Later, we learned kids playing with matches near the factory dumpster was the actual cause). We heard the booming of explosions even during the first encounter, and since we have heard hundreds more as the fire found new fuel upon which to feed.
Juilo, Lolo, and my other neighbors stood at my side just as shocked at what we saw as I was, each of us secretly praying the firefighters could halt the advance of flames before these reached Passaic Street and engulfed the buildings there where we lived. Firefighters evacuated building after building as they made their retreat, giving up the block of apartments closest to the blaze, hoping they would not have to give up more blocks, making the fire impossible to contain.
For most part, however, the firefighters stood fast, hurrying the civilians out of the war zone as they maintained their wall of flesh against the looming wall of flame, arches of water like lances stabbing here and there -- but to little apparent affect. The resturant, a block from my building, went up despite a soaking, as did eighteen other buildings containing apartments. But many others seemed spared, the water sizzling and boiling, but the wood beneath free of ignition.
At one point, eight or ten factories burned all at once, as firefighter struggled to pull brother firefighter free of the overwhelming smoke, some burned, some coughing, many making their way back to the ambulances were EMTs administer oxygen and treatment for burns.
Meanwhile, families pour out of the unburned houses, carrying possessions on their backs, clothing bundled in blankets or plastic trash bags, these along with stereos and TVs on top of their heads. Many are Polish immigrants, who had settled here to avoid the wrath of a communist government during the solidarity struggle a few years ago, stumbling along the sidewalk as if the Soviets had attacked, each wearing the shocked expression I had seen in magazine photos: the last days of Vietnam, and the countless days of other countries touched by war. The fire has made hundreds of them homeless, and from reports whispering through the crowds, thousands, unemployed.
The sirens wail without mercy, echoing off the brick and wood faces of the surviving buildings, reporting reponse teams on all sides of the fire, as the people on the far side of the river line the banks to watch the display of flames: factory after factory along our side mowed down, walls tumbling in showers of sparks to hiss in the dark surface of the river.
Public Service and Gas trucks fill the ranks as its employees join the firefighters in making certain the utilities are cut off, no natural gas, no additional problems. No electricty, not likelyhood of a firefighter getting electrocuted. But the lack of these darkens the buildings and makes them seem shells even before the flames lick their roofs.
From our vantage point, we can smell the spread of chemicals, that acid scent that the flames set free and which is carried to us on the billows of smoke. But spreading far more quickly than any smell is panic, as people -- even in their amazement -- shudder and cringe back, waiting for the moment when the police or fire department yells for us to move, readying to take flight across the sole remaining unimpared bridge towards Garfield.
"It's the biggest fire ever," one firefighter mumbles, although we learn later our fire is among one of the largest -- that one greater helped level Lodi a few years earlier and helped build a modern shopping mall on its ruins.
Hip boots squeeked past us in the dark as more firefighters lay down miles of additional hose, Wall Street so thick as if vines had grown out of the river. Even experienced firefighters stumble as they made their way across.
"They'll be using river water soon," Lolo said, as we learned later how earlier they tried, waiting for permission from the county to dip their pumps in.
Some firefighters later claimed they could have halted the fire earlier if permission had come sooner -- no thanks to the string of fire hydrants the city hadn't bothered to turn on until the fire spread too far.
"A change of wind could kill us all," Julio mumbled, his face painted red by the flashes of flame, like a child's illuminated by fireworks -- only the bursts here did not fade after each boom, but seemed to grow bigger and brighter and more terrible.
I kept thinking the whole time we stood there what war must have been like, what innocent victims of a bombing must have felt when witnessing their homes turning to rubble.
I had packed some things in anticipation of evacuation, and wondered if my dog and two cats would give me trouble when I tried to move them from the house to the relatively more distant car I had parked a block further west -- a car trapped between the fire and the fire trucks, unable to escape if the flames broke through the barricade of water.
On came the flames. Up rose new spouts of water to greet them. Firefighters -- lifted by 100 foot ladders -- stood against the flow of smoke like petty warriors, spraying the red billows in a fight that went on and on.
A firefighter came, told us we had to move. I hurried back down the block to my house only to find more firefighters at my door, pounding, telling people they had to leave.
The flames had advanced. We could see the sparks falling onto the roofs of the buildings just across the street from ours. If they caught, these would sprinkle orange sparks on our building, too, and the firefighters wanted us out of harms way as they set up their defence ontop of our buildings, hoping the break in the street and the spray of the water would turn back the flames before they leaped over.
I didn't have much to carry -- because I could never carry everything I wanted. I had to settle for a change of clothing, and my pets, and I paraded down the block, becoming one more in the flock of homeless. On 8th Street, I could see the flames pouring out of store front doorways, criss crossing the space where trucks previously rumbled, the silohoute of firefighters and their hoses against it as car after car exploded, the parked time bombs no one ever expected to see set off.
Panic siezed the crowd. People -- huddled until then right behind the firefighters -- ran towards us, full of reports of impending doom, shouting that the fire had escaped and would soon consume us. I did not move, once I got my pets into my car. I just sat on the rear bumper and watched the flames, as they inched along the fronts of buildings making their way to Passaic, making ready to leap across to my building.
Hundreds of families stood on the sidewalk staring at the stunning light show as day slipped into night without a dampening of the flames. Some of these families had already lost their homes, dragged out by firefighters minutes before the arrival of the fire.
More than 3,000 people lost their jobs that night. More than 1,500 people lost their homes. Yet, remarkably, not one resident or factory worker was killed. But the fire had threatened to devour hundreds of more homes and was stopped largely because of the tenacity of the firefighters.
In those hours I prayed numerous times, as did many of the others around me, and in those hours, sweating, coughing, exhausted firefighters beat back the wall of flames, one slow inch at a time, so that doom -- which had seemed so certain at one point -- grew less certain, then less likely, and finally, when the wind shifted again, we knew we had been spared.
I did not know it at the time, but one brave firefighter from Secaucus lost his life. William "Bo" Koenemund, from the Washington Hook & Ladder company died of a heart attack while fighting the fire.