Chapter Fifteen: A continuing history


            One by one, the fire houses made their requests to town government to upgrade their vehicles, but none were so memorable as the 7th Street debackle or so filled with emotion as upgrading the engine at Bo's old firehouse, Washington Hook and Ladder.

Chicora Park Fire House on Centre Avenue in Secaucus received its new vehicle in late 1997, just in time to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

            Although the $377,000 pumper momentarily completed the town's upgrade for fire equipment, the requests would continue later, when the Northend firehouse sought to replace its 1979 pumper with a new vehicle as well.

            Chicora Park started operations in 1922 to give the town added protection. The town owned only one gasolined-powered vehicle at the time. All the rest were drawn by horses or by hand.

            After numerous debates the group of men met at their firehouse on Paterson Plank Road and incorporated their charter in May, 1922, then set about looking for some means to pay for the new fire truck. With the help of the Hudson County Police, they set up collection stations on Paterson Plank Road bridge where it crossed the Hackensack River (at a location now occupied by Trolley Park). They stopped every vehicle pleading for money, and by early 1923, were able to purchase the truck. They moved the firehouse to its current location on Centre Avenue, constructing the building themselves. The first vehicle was a Brockway, with a starter so unreliable the firefighters often had to push the vehicle down a hill to get it started.

            In the following years, the truck kept busy, although two particular fires stood out in the minds of some older firefighters. Several pig farm off Secaucus Road went up in flames and continued to burn for two days. Other firefighters recalled an oil tanker fire on Old Route 3 as the worst fire they had to respond to before the Great Dundee Fire in 1985 drew many of the town's firefighters to Passaic.

            In 1931, members of the Chicora Park Fire Company confronted their most unusual situation after responding to a small fire on Chestnut Street -- located about three blocks from the current town hall. While the fire was little more than a few flames darting around the edges of the house, firefighters found a huge still at the sourse of the smoke. This consisted of a huge copper boiler in the basement with an extention that rose up two stories and into the garret of the house. At first they mistook it for a heating system, but it seemed too large for the structure -- something better designed for a factory.

            Firefighters also founda tunnel from the cellar to the garage, which police suspected might have been used as a means of escape, or perhaps a way of getting the manufactured alcohol from the still to a vehicle without being seen from the street. The garage contained an oil tank, connected by piping to the still. Those who set up the still had masked the operation by installing curtains on the all the house's windows to make the place look like an odinary resistence.

            Police along with federal authories emptied about 35 gallons of the moonshine into a drain in the cellar. Three cans were transported to headquarters for use as evidence.

            During the fire, one firefighter fell into the furnace pit but avoided serious burns by leaping away from the churning furnace.

            Secaucus Road continued to be a problem years after the pig farms reverted to meadows. During one drive through, I encountered several fire companies attempting to contain a blaze that threatened to sweep across Secaucus Road towards the residental part of town. Fires had broken out throughout the meadowlands due to a particularly drive season. In one day,, five small brush fires along the shores of Mill Creek broken out on the northend of town, while a larger, more serious brush fire roared to life on the southside of Secaucus Road.

            While on the scene Former Secaucus fire chief George Shoenrock told me the high winds carried the flames across Penhorn creak and ignited the meadows along the Jersey City side of Secaucus Road. Flames from this fire could be seen as far away as Union City, and slowed traffic along Route 3 with rubbernecking.

            Fire fighters from the Washington Hook & Ladder company responded first to the call, but soon drew in many of the other fire companies. The Seventh Street Fire company shifted to the Plaza fire house in order to cover for any other calls in town. Meanwhile, fire companies from West New York, Jersey City, Union City, Rutherford, East Rutherford and Weehawken were brought in.

            By 3:30 p.m., the flames soared so high and smoke limited visibility so much that fire and police officials closed off Secaucus Road with backups along most of the other area roadways. Ashes and smoke from the fires floated across the rest of Hudson County. One commuter exiting the PATH in Hoboken said she had seen the ashes coming down on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Others reported smelling the fire as they exited their Manhattan offices. Many thought it came from a building or incinerator fire.

            ``I couldn't believe the smoke was coming all the way from New Jersey,'' one commuter said.

            While two of the fires were reported along Secaucus Road, another fire was later reported in Jersey City near the Public Service Electric and Gas electrical generator. Workers at the U.S. Postal Service bulk mail facility said they saw flames encroaching on that facility. One other fire was reported behind Last Sportswear Inc. on Tonnelle Avenue.

            Fire fighters from Rutherford and East Rutherford were called back to their home towns when the wind shifted the flames towards facilities in Earth Rutherford. About 200 workers were evacuated from a factory, though no injuries were reported.

The fire also halted rail service for a short time between Newark and New York City, and later stopped traffic on the Northeast Corridor line and the North Jersey Coast line. All service was resumed within two hours.

            Shoenrock, who surveyed the Secaucus Road fire from one of the embankments said meadow fires are common this time of year.

            ``It's almost a yearly thing,'' he said. ``You might call it meadow fire season.''

            Over the years, the fire department faced numerous tragedies, and resulted in numerous heros. In the early 1990s, Mike Gonnelli, who would later become Chicora Park's captain, rescued a baby from a burning car on the New Jersey Turnpike. Yet deaths were frequent. In one year along, 11 people died in fires and highway accidents to which the department had to respond.

In 1998, John Reilly would come close to making the ultimate sacrifice in a rescue that won him as much criticism as it did praise.


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