River Ridge Terrace, an apartment building in Highland Park, was the scene of a fire on Monday, June 11. An apartment on the top floor was badly damaged. The apartments below it suffered water damage, but no one was injured. The volunteer firefighters from Highland Park, New Brunswick and Franklin Township responded, as did the volunteers of the Highland Park First Aid Squad and the Highland Park Community Emergency Response Team. Residents were evacuated at approximately 5:15 p.m., and most were escorted back to their apartments by 11:30 p.m.
But that is not the real story. The real story is how the fire brought a community together.
River Ridge has 82 condominium units. Many of the residents are elderly. Some live there with aides. The evening of June 11 began with concern and some panic, but by the time the evening was over, there were smiles of relief, as well as the satisfaction of new friends made and a fine time had by all.
Here is my story…
I had been caught up in traffic and I got to my home at 5:55 p.m. to find fire trucks and emergency vehicles all over. All the residents had been evacuated about half an hour before and were outside. Someone had brought folding chairs from the community room, and a number of people were sitting. The volunteers of the Highland Park First Aid Squad were handing out blankets to some of the elderly residents.
I parked my car in a visitor’s spot because there was smoke and water pouring out of a window on the top floor in the back of the building, right near my own parking spot. It seems the fire started from a candle left unattended. The sprinkler system was on. The firefighters were putting out the fire. More fire engines came, but as the fire got contained, the sprinkler system continued to run. Apartments in that “line” all suffered water damage. But no one was injured, thank God.
All the residents waited outside. I circulated among the residents, chatted with some I knew, sang some songs with a group of them. Closer to 7 p.m., the fire marshal allowed residents to move indoors to the community room on the first floor of the building. I helped carry chairs inside. People got settled—it was crowded. A few people went off to eat dinner at local restaurants, but most of the older people could not leave easily. I decided to go out to Dunkin Donuts and I asked one of my neighbors to come with me. I bought two dozen bagels and bottles of water. We carried that back and distributed it to those who were hungry.
Highland Park’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is staffed by volunteers. By the time I returned from Dunkin Donuts they were at River Ridge. Most of the members of the first aid squad and the response team are members of my shul—so I know them by name! Meanwhile one of the CERT volunteers called her husband and a friend who plays guitar. CERT volunteers circulated, calmed people, offered water and directed people to the bathroom that was working on the main level.
At some point there was an announcement made that the fire marshals were inspecting everything, the electricians were checking stuff, the Servpro people were coming to clean up the water. The electricity and water in the apartments would be back on soon, but we were told we should not count on getting into the apartments for at least two hours. (This actually turned into much longer.) At that point a few people contacted family who came over to sit with them or who took them home. But there were still at least 50 people in the community room. I took a quick survey of the people and then went to Jerusalem Pizza to get dinner. I brought back pizza, salads and more bottled water. Neighbors helped distribute the food.
After food was distributed, we had a full blown kumsitz! We sang campfire-type songs, American patriotic songs, and Hebrew songs. What touched me most were the smiles on the faces of everyone in the room. As I circulated—singing at the top of my lungs, I realized that some of the residents who rarely said more than “hello” to anyone were singing and enjoying themselves. There were people joking with each other, reminiscing about when they last sang a particular song.
Every so often someone official would come into the room to provide us with an update. I spoke with and convinced a few of the older women to call their children and get picked up. One woman’s son came over to thank me when he arrived. “Mom didn’t want to leave right away; she was having too much of a good time,” he said.
By 10:30 p.m. officials were escorting people to the top floor (the affected floor) to get medication and clothing for the night, and the response team was making sure each of them had a place to stay the night. The people in that wing of the building—apartments L and M on each floor below—were also allowed to get essentials but could not stay in their apartments that night. By 11 p.m. the firemen were escorting people back to apartments in the building wings that did not have water damage. Firemen were stationed for the duration of the night in areas where they could not activate the fire system, and the ServPro guys began to clean out all the water in the affected wing of the building.
In those six hours a group of people who share the same address became a close-knit, caring community.
Yes, a fire that caused destruction brought us together.