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  1. #1
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    Three Firefighters, At Least Two Kids Dead in New Jersey House Fire

    Associated Press

    GLOUCESTER CITY, N.J. (AP) -- Fire broke out in a three-story duplex early Thursday, killing at least two children and three firefighters trying to rescue them, authorities said. Another child, a sibling of the two who died, was missing.

    The blaze broke out around 1:30 a.m., hours after marchers in Gloucester City's Fourth of July parade passed by the house. The fire was being investigated as a criminal incident, although there was no evidence it had been set, authorities said.

    The roof of the building collapsed, trapping eight firefighters, but five escaped, Acting Camden County Prosecutor James P. Lynch said.

    The children's mother was taken to Crozier-Chester Burn Center in Chester, Pa., said Greg Reinert, a spokesman for the Camden County prosecutor's office. Her condition was not immediately available.

    Ten other people, including eight firefighters, were taken to Cooper Hospital-University Medical Center in Camden, where they were being treated for unspecified injuries.

    The identities of the victims were not immediately available, but authorities said the three children were siblings.

    The three firefighters who died had been looking for the children when the home's roof collapsed on them, Reinert said.

    Independence Day festivities in the town of 11,000 residents have been canceled because of the fire, Acting Camden County Prosecutor Jim Dale said.

    Gloucester City is about five miles south of Philadelphia

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    3 Sisters and 3 Firefighters Die as Roof Collapses in Blaze


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    Gloucester N.J. City blaze

    3 firefighters and 3 sisters perish after roof collapses during Gloucester City blaze

    Friday, July 05, 2002

    Star-Ledger Staff

    A three-story duplex in Gloucester City caught fire and collapsed early yesterday, killing 3-year-old twin girls, their 5-year-old sister and three firefighters who were trying to save them.

    One of the victims, a 30-year-old city fireman, had proposed to his girlfriend on a firetruck at a Fourth of July fireworks display only hours before the blaze started. City firefighters had passed directly in front of the duplex on North Broadway at Mercer Street Wednesday night during a pre-holiday parade.

    Eight firefighters initially were trapped inside the collapsed building, but five were dug out by their colleagues. All eight had remained inside the duplex after an evacuation alarm sounded when it appeared a collapse was imminent. Seven other firemen heeded the alarm and left.

    The dead firemen were identified as Thomas Stewart, 30, of the Gloucester City department, and two volunteer firefighters from neighboring Mount Ephraim, Chief James Sylvester, 31, and Deputy Chief John West, 41.

    The children's mother was taken to the Crozer-Chester Burn Center in Chester, Pa., where a nursing supervisor said she was in critical but stable condition last night. A man escaped the blaze, police and fire officials said, but they declined to release his identity last night. The family's name was being withheld until relatives could be notified of the sisters' deaths.

    Neighbors said the family had rented one unit of the duplex for less than a year. The tenants of the second unit were not at home when the fire broke out.

    The cause of the blaze, which began shortly after 1:30 a.m., remains under investigation.

    The commotion awakened neighbors, some of whom got outside in time to watch the house collapse.

    "I couldn't believe my eyes; it was horrible," said Elizabeth Ruszkai, a 31-year city resident.

    Next door neighbor Bill Dieterich, 20, got his whole family out just as firefighters arrived. He saw a woman standing on the roof of the burning house, trying to get back inside.

    "She was burned bad. The firefighters kept telling her to jump, that someone would catch her. But she was screaming, 'My babies are in there! My babies are in there!'"

    Firefighters got the woman out before the building collapsed, about 25 minutes after fire companies arrived. When it looked as if the building was about to fall, an evacuation order sounded -- a three-tone alert that aired on all firefighter radios and trucks.

    "Kids were in there and they wanted to get to them," said Bob Saunders, the city's emergency management coordinator. But two minutes after the evacuation order sounded, the roof collapsed, trapping eight firefighters inside. Two of the five surviving firefighters were caught in a small crevice created when a wall collapsed on a sofa, said Saunders. That probably saved their lives, he said.

    "They were buried. Parts of them were stuck," said city Fire Chief William Glassman.

    It took about 30 minutes for colleagues to dig them out, and they walked away, Saunders said. The three who died were found only a few feet away from them. Saunders said he didn't know if they had fallen from an upper floor in the collapse.

    Gov. James E. McGreevey visited the fire scene in the morning and pledged to provide college tuition aid to the children of the dead firefighters, who he said had "made the supreme sacrifice." West had three young children and Sylvester's wife is expecting their first child.

    To go into a burning building takes "just a tremendous, tremendous amount of valor on their part," said State Police Sgt. 1st Class Keith Dreher.

    More than 200 firefighters responded to the fire, coming from the city and other surrounding towns.

    The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sent members of one of its national response teams, which are normally reserved for national catastrophes, according to Mark Chait, assistant special agent in charge of ATF's Philadelphia field office.

    But Chait said firefighter Stewart had an ATF-trained canine who worked closely with the national response team.

    "This is closer to us than normal situations," Chait said.

    Stewart had been off-duty, but like other firefighters from the area, responded to the two-alarm call. He was a lifelong resident of the Camden County city and a graduate of Gloucester Catholic High School.

    Stewart followed in his father's footsteps, serving as a volunteer firefighter before becoming a member of the city's paid department while in his early 20s.

    "It's a family tradition," said his aunt, Barbara Kell.

    During the Fourth of July festivities Wednesday night, Stewart had proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Danielle Ruggierio, with whom he had a 15-month-old son. Stewart had climbed atop one of his department's firetrucks, which had been rolled out to the middle of the high school field where the fireworks were going to be held. Awash in floodlights, he proposed to Ruggierio and she accepted.

    Kell described her nephew as a "good kid" who loved being a firefighter.

    "I don't think anyone just does this. ... It's not just a job." she said.

    "He was just a wonderful kid," said Carol Ruggierio, Danielle's mother. "He was so good to her. Just a nice person. He was here to help everybody whenever they need it."

    The fire was put out shortly after 5 a.m., and rescuers used backhoes to clear debris while they searched for victims. When a firefighter's body was removed about 8 a.m., police and firefighters lined up several rows deep and saluted.

    Gloucester City, chartered in 1623, has 11,500 residents and is the oldest municipality in New Jersey. It is an aging riverfront city and former home of shipyards just south of the Walt Whitman bridge about five miles from Philadelphia. Much of its housing stock was built in the 19th century. The building that burned is believed to have been that old.

    "It's an extremely tough day for our community," said Mayor Bob Gorman.

    Yesterday's Independence Day festivities in Gloucester City and Mount Ephraim were canceled.

    The firefighter deaths were the first in 38 years in Gloucester City, which has 26 paid firemen and 45 volunteers. Mount Ephraim, which has 65 volunteers, had not had a fireman killed since 1977.

    In the aftermath of the fire, the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey called for an investigation of the blaze by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety. The organization also said it would ask the Governor to impanel a task force to study statewide fire company staffing, training and equipment.

    Staff writer Rudy Larini and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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    S. Jersey House Blaze

    3 firemen, 3 sisters die in S. Jersey house blaze
    Friday, July 05, 2002

    The Associated Press

    Firefighters in Gloucester City digging through rubble at a house fire in search of comrades' remains. (AP)

    GLOUCESTER CITY - Three young sisters and three firefighters who tried to save them died Thursday in an early morning house fire that turned a small town's Fourth of July into a day of mourning.

    Less than seven hours before fire broke out in the brown 2

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    Dead Firefighters Praised as Heroes

    Dead firefighters praised as heroes who loved job
    Friday, July 05, 2002

    The Associated Press

    GLOUCESTER CITY - The three veteran firefighters who died in a burning house Thursday were hailed as heroes and remembered as good men who loved fighting fires.

    One played softball, another's wife was expecting the couple's first child, and the third engaged in a momentous public display of affection.

    Thomas G. Stewart III used the PA system on a firetruck Wednesday to propose to Danielle Ruggiero in front of the cheering crowd gathered at Gloucester City High School to watch the Independence Day fireworks.

    "He just did the typical one-knee thing and he proposed to her," said Ray Williams, 18, a Gloucester City resident who saw the romantic moment.

    She accepted.

    About 12 hours later, his colleagues were pulling Stewart's body from the debris of a burned building.

    The blaze broke out in 2

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    South Jersey Fire Claims Six Lives

    South Jersey fire claims six lives

    Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/05/02
    GLOUCESTER CITY -- A day of celebration became a time for citywide mourning yesterday when a predawn blaze caused a duplex to collapse, killing three firefighters and three young sisters trapped in the pile of burning rubble.

    Later, scores of emergency workers stared at the charred, jumbled remains of the three-story, wood-frame duplex on Broadway. It was the deadliest blaze for firefighters in New Jersey in more than a decade.

    "It's just real tough to lose a friend and see two other men lose their lives," said Jeff Sanderson, a 21-year-old volunteer city firefighter, who was weary and red-eyed by midmorning. "Those three guys devoted their lives to this. They did everything they could to get those kids out."

    Katia "Tia" Williamson, the mother of the three girls who died -- twin 3-year-olds and a 5-year-old -- was hospitalized in critical but stable condition last night at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Upland, Pa. Eight injured firefighters were treated at Cooper Hospital/University Medical Center, Camden.

    The cause of the blaze remained under investigation last night; there was no immediate sign of foul play. Officials said a stretch of Broadway would remain closed until authorities are finished combing through the scene for clues.

    Neighbors and firefighters at the scene on Broadway -- the main thoroughfare of this South Jersey city on the Delaware River -- said they were stunned by the ferocity of the blaze and how quickly the building collapsed on top of those trapped inside.

    Flames streamed to the street as the home fell. Sparks shot from electrical lines as debris tumbled. One firefighter was blown to the ground, but he quickly recovered.

    The fire, which started about 1:30 a.m., was so intense that it melted the siding off a pizzeria across Mercer Street.

    Hundreds battle blaze
    Hundreds of firefighters from three South Jersey counties and Philadelphia had to be relieved by morning, when the temperature already was 90 degrees, so they wouldn't suffer heat exhaustion.
    "It was a terrible, tragic morning," said acting Camden County Prosecutor James Lynch.

    The three firefighters killed in the collapse, who had a combined 47 years of service to their departments, were:

    Thomas G. Stewart III, 30, a paid member of the city Fire Department. He had publicly proposed to his girlfriend hours before.

    Mount Ephraim Fire Chief James E. Sylvester, 31. The volunteer firefighter and his wife, Marilyn, were expecting their first child next month.

    Mount Ephraim Deputy Fire Chief John D. West, 40, a volunteer firefighter who also was chief investigator for the Camden County Fire Marshal's Office.
    Fourth of July parades in both Gloucester City and Mount Ephraim were canceled as the two communities grieved. A brief prayer service was held at St. Mary's Church in late morning.

    Little information was released about the children, who neighbors said were twin girls and their older sister. The girls, who had moved in with their mother less than a year ago, often stood on the corner of Broadway and Mercer Street, waving to cars and asking them to honk their horns.

    They opened a lemonade stand for thirsty passers-by last week.

    Residents were awakened in the predawn hours on what would become the hottest day of the year so far to the smell of thick smoke and sounds of children screaming. The fire started at 200 Broadway and raced to the adjoining home, 202.

    City firefighters were dispatched at 1:36 a.m. and arrived less than three minutes later, responding to the first of eight alarms. Many of those same firefighters has passed by the home hours earlier during the city's Fourth of July parade.

    By that time, the tan duplex was already fully engulfed in flames, city Fire Department spokesman Robert Saunders said. Flames shot from the first- and second-story windows, he said.

    Less than 30 minutes into the blaze, a team of firefighters was sent inside to search for people. The team managed to rescue Williamson through a rear door, but her three girls remained inside.

    While eight firefighters were still in the house, part of the building collapsed. An emergency evacuation was declared and was in progress when the event turned catastrophic, as the entire structure began to fall while firefighters were stranded on different floors throughout the home.

    New tactics
    The rescuers drastically changed their tactics at that point.
    Orders were given to stop pouring water on the fire for fear it that would push smoke and gases down into the building, instead of up and away from the trapped men and children.

    "Once we determined their possible location it took us about 20 to 30 minutes to get the five survivors out," city Fire Chief Bill Glassman said.

    By then the fire was burning out of control.

    By 6 a.m., workers were using the claws of massive excavating equipment to pick through remains to locate bodies. Occasionally, flames would flare up.

    Shortly after that, the bodies of the three firefighters were located; it took about 20 or 25 minutes to remove them.

    The State Police arson unit, the Camden County Prosecutor's Office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are handling the fire investigation because the victims included firefighters, but there's no indication that a crime occurred, authorities said.

    The head of the state firefighters union is calling for a full investigation to see whether Fire Department understaffing contributed to the tragedy.

    Staff writers Mike Daniels, Jason Nark and Bill Shralow contributed to this story.

  7. #7
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    Gloucester City FD News Release

    Three Firefighters, Three Kids Killed in Gloucester City, NJ
    Collapse Traps Eight Firefighters During Fire Attack, Rescue Operation

    Gloucester City FD News Release

    On 4 July 2002 at 0136 hrs. the Gloucester City Fire Department was dispatched to 200 North Broadway for a reported house fire. Responding units were advised that occupants may be trapped

    First arriving units were on location in less than three minutes. They found heavy fire on all exposures of a three-story multi-family dwelling and initiated a search for entrapped occupants. (Various reports from bystanders were at times conflicting regarding the number and location of victims)

    While providing an aggressive interior attack and rescue operation, an occupant was rescued from the dwelling. Due to the severity of their injuries they were unable to give direction regarding the whereabouts of any other occupants.

    While all hands were operating by continuing an aggressive interior attack and rescue, a partial collapse of the structure occurred. An emergency evacuation signal was sounded and while that was commencing a further and much more substantial collapse occurred trapping eight firefighters inside the burning debris.

    AP Photo/ Brian Branch-Price
    Firefighters search for the remains of a fallen comrade during a blaze in Goucester City, N.J., Thursday, July 4, 2002.

    The Victims

    Thomas G. Stewart, III, who has just proposed to his girlfriend, Gloucester City FD

    Chief James E. Sylvester, Mount Ephraim FD

    Deputy Chief John D. West, Mount Ephraim FD

    Additional specialized collapse rescue resources were requested, firefighter accountability was initiated and rescue efforts were intensified. Five of the eight trapped firefighters were rescued. Three of the eight gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to their fellow man

    As of this report we have recovered all of our fallen comrades as well as all of the reported missing children. Unfortunately these three children did not survive.

    Although immediate family has been notified, we wish all involved to respect the families at this time as they make personal notifications to their extended families. We will release information once we get the approval of all involved.

    A total of nine victims were transported to area hospitals, one civilian and eight firefighters. All firefighters were treated and released and the civilian was transferred from Cooper Hospital-University Medical Center Trauma Center to Crozier-Chester Medical Center Burn Unit.

    A short prayer service was held at St. Mary

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    Gloucester City Blaze

    Posted on Thu, Jul. 04, 2002

    Three children, three firefighters die in Gloucester City blaze
    By Dwight Ott, Elisa Ung, Kaitlin Gurney and Kristen A. Graham
    Inquirer Staff Writers

    GLOUCESTER CITY - The six deaths came in the worst way, just hours after a joyous pre-July Fourth celebration: three small children killed, three firefighters lost trying to rescue them from an early-morning house fire.

    They came early today after one of those firefighters, Thomas Stewart III, 30, of Gloucester City, ascended a ladder during the festivities Wednesday and proposed to his girlfriend over a public-address system.

    They sent two close-knit Camden County towns into mourning, for Mount Ephraim's two top-ranking volunteer firefighters died in the fire - Chief James Sylvester, 31, whose wife was expecting their first child next month, and Deputy Chief John West, 41, a Camden County fire marshal with three young children.

    And they reverberated throughout a region where many towns were celebrating the first Independence Day after Sept. 11 with parades honoring rescue workers.

    "Today is an example of courage, selflessness, and the supreme sacrifice," said Gov. McGreevey, who visited the scene this morning. U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine was there later.

    McGreevey said the state will fund the college educations of the firefighters' children.

    The fire is being investigated by the New Jersey State Police arson unit and the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.

    It was among the largest local losses of firefighters' lives: the One Meridian Plaza fire of 1991 in Center City Philadelphia killed three firefighters, and in 1975, eight died in a Gulf Oil refinery blaze in the city.

    Little was known today about the three young victims, 3-year-old twins and their 5-year-old sister. Their parents escaped, though their mother was in critical condition at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Delaware County. Their names were not released.

    The fire was reported shortly after 1:30 a.m. in the 200 block of North Broadway, a two-and-a-half-story duplex that had recently received a certificate of occupancy. Neighbors said the victims had lived there about a year, and that the residents of the other unit were on their honeymoon.

    Former firefighter Harry Tomlin, 41, who lives across the street and was a friend of Thomas Stewart, said he was among the first to call the fire in.

    "I heard a ruckus outside, people yelling, it sounded like a fight," he told reporters. "I went out, saw the fire. I went and got my pants on and my wife said there were people trapped." He called 911.

    "When I went outside, the father was screaming that his children were inside. But by that time, there was no way we could get in. The heat was pushing us back."

    Tomlin said a woman appeared on the roof. "I was begging her not to go back inside. But fire does funny things to people. She went back inside.

    "The flames moved quickly. It was hot as a frying pan on the roof where she was. I felt helpless," Tomlin said.

    Next-door neighbor Bobbi Ann Dieterich, 31, also saw the mother screaming for help and called 911. After fleeing her own home, Dieterich said she watched the blaze engulf the duplex's first floor, spread to a tree and to the top floor.

    Monique Gagliardi, 34, noticed the blaze when the heat level rose inside her home, and took to the street. "There wasn't a window that there wasn't a flame coming out of," she said.

    Fire officials said the house partially collapsed and workers sounded an emergency evacuation. But suddenly, the entire structure fell, trapping eight firefighters under burning debris.

    Gagliardi said the house fell "like a deck of cards. It looked like everything was under control, and then it just collapsed. Everybody was running."

    Five of the eight were rescued. They and three others were treated at area hospitals and released.

    The fire was left burning hours longer than normal, officials said, to prevent forcing hot gas into the debris, where the victims were trapped.

    The fire was out shortly after 5 a.m., and rescuers used backhoes to clear rubble while they searched for victims. When a firefighter's body was removed about 8 a.m., police and firefighters lined up several rows deep and saluted.

    "The most painful thing in this process," said Camden County Fire Marshal Paul Hartstein, "was the hope they were still alive. Just to know we were that close . . . but they were pinned by so much debris."

    Throughout the sweltering day, demolition crews sorted through the ruins, seeking the third child, who was found around 1 p.m.

    In a scene reminiscent of the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse, firefighters doffed their hats as they were led in prayer by the Rev. Michael Manion of Immaculate Conception Church in Camden. Then they gently lifted the last body from the ruins and carried it away.

    Hundreds of rescue workers helped throughout the day, including fire companies from Camden and Gloucester Counties as well as Philadelphia.

    West joined the county fire marshal's office in 1990, Hartstein said. An eager, thorough investigator, he rose to head of the county canine unit, and was rarely seen without his Labrador retriever, Raider.

    He and his wife, Angela, had three children - a toddler, John Jr., and daughters Alyssa and Nicole.

    Sylvester and his wife of three years, Marilyn, were expecting their first child next month.

    A lifelong resident of Mount Ephraim, Sylvester seemed born to be a fireman - as a child, his favorite place was the fire station, where his father was chief.

    Everyone in town assumed Sylvester would follow his father. "He was a great kid, and he grew up to be a great guy," said Mount Ephraim commissioner James Weist Jr. "But always, his hobby was firefighting."

    Both West and Sylvester, who was the borough's public works director, taught at the Camden County Fire Academy.

    Stewart, son of a prominent Gloucester City family of firefighters, was remembered as kind and helpful.

    "His dad was a firefighter," said friend Gagliardi. "He was always the one who took care of people when something like this happened. I was told he went back in after the mom. He was yelling for everyone else to get out. The mom went back after the kids and he went in after the mom."

    Wednesday afternoon, Stewart was anxious but obviously overjoyed as he prepared to propose to Danielle Ruggiero, mother of his 2-year-old son, Nicholas. He told an Inquirer reporter that he was "great, but I'll be a lot better when this is over."

    He said he had planned every detail, and had even obtained the fire chief's permission to bring a fire truck to the event, an unusual circumstance. Stewart climbed the truck's ladder, then proposed to his fianc

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    Funeral/Viewing Information

    James Sylvester
    Fire Chief, Mount Ephraim Fire Department
    Sylvester, 31, a 17 year veteran, is survived by his wife, who is pregnant with the couple's first child

    Memorial/Funeral Information

    Viewing: Sunday, Gardner Funeral Home, 126 S Black Horse Pike, 1600- 2100

    Mass of Christian Burial: Monday, 1100, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Black Horse Pike and Kings Hwy

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    Funeral/Viewing Information

    John West
    Deputy Chief, Mount Ephraim Fire Department
    West, 40, a 23-year veteran, is survived by his wife and three children

    Memorial/Funeral Information

    Viewing: Monday, 1700-2100, Milano Funeral Home, 11 E Kings Hwy, Mount Ephraim

    Mass of Christian Burial: 1100 hours, Tuesday at Sacred Heart Church

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    Funeral/Viewing Information

    Thomas G. Stewart III
    Paid Firefighter, Gloucester City Fire Department
    Stewart, 30, a 13 year veteran, survived by his fiancee and their son. Stewart publicly proposed to his girlfriend, Danielle Ruggiero, hours before while they watched the city's fireworks from high atop a firetruck ladder at Gloucester City High School.

    Memorial/Funeral Information

    Viewing Tuesday: 1800- 2100, St Mary's Catholic Church, 426 Monmouth St, Gloucester,

    Mass of Christian Burial: Wednesday at St Mary's Church, the same location as the viewing, on Wednesday at 1100

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    Mount Ephraim residents mourn the lost of two 'heroes'

    Mount Ephraim residents mourn the lost of two 'heroes'

    Associated Press Writer

    July 5, 2002, 5:59 PM EDT

    MOUNT EPHRAIM, N.J. -- In the dimly lit bar of the Mount Ephraim Democrat Club, people barely spoke above a whisper Friday.

    The bar's large TV was tuned to an updated news story on a Gloucester City fire that claimed the lives of two volunteer firefighters from this Camden County town Thursday.

    When the photos of the Mount Ephraim Fire Chief James E. Sylvester and Deputy Chief John D. West were shown, those sitting at the bar put their heads down, almost in unison.

    "This is so sad," said bartender Ronnie Lees as she placed her hand on her chest to hold back tears.

    Sylvester and West, along with Gloucester City firefighter Thomas G. Stewart III, were killed when the roof of a burning house collapsed early Thursday. The men were trying to save three children, who also perished when the roof fell.

    Mount Ephraim residents have been in mourning since.

    "That fire just about tore this town up," said James Chiarulli, 45. "We're all just walking around in shock."

    Just 24 hours after the tragedy, a makeshift memorial to the fallen men appeared in front of the fire station. Businesses and homes flew American flags, originally out for July 4th, at half staff.

    Mary Bray Elementary School, located next door to the firehouse, posted a special message on its community billboard: "Our hearts grieve for our fallen firefighters and their families."

    "Everybody here wants to do something but don't know exactly what," said Dave Engler, 60, a secretary for Mepri Banquet Room on West Kings Highway.

    The deaths hit the town hard because firefighters are constant figures in this small community, said Pat Meiluta, 62. He said they participate in town parades and are active in community events.

    "Everybody know everybody here, especially firemen," said Meiluta, who knew Sylvester as "Jim Jim."

    Word about the fire began to spread in the town as residents showed up for the town's canceled July 4th parades.

    "We were all in tears at the Democrat Club," Chiarulli said. "Those guys are heroes to us."

    Sylvester's funeral is scheduled for noon Monday at Sacred Heart church in Mount Ephraim. West's is to be held the 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the same church. Stewart's is scheduled 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Mary's church in Gloucester City.

    Federal agents were still searching the fire scene to determine the cause of the fire. Authorities said they were treating the scene as a criminal investigation until ruled otherwise.

    Residents said the fire comes after several tragedies in Mount Ephraim in the last year.

    In May, a Haddon Heights man drove his Cadillac through the front of a McDonald's, killing three women. Last year Christine Eberle, a 27-year-old resident, was abducted from a Camden rail station and found dead the next day.

    "For a town our size," said Engler, "this past year has been a lot to swallow."


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    A Time to Heal, a Time to Question

    Posted on Sun, Jul. 07, 2002

    A time to heal, a time to question
    Gloucester City grapples with the aftermath of a fire that killed three girls and three firefighters. A union seeks a federal probe.
    By Joseph A. Gambardello and Kaitlin Gurney
    Inquirer Staff Writers

    Firefighters have an expression: "Risk a little, save a little; risk a lot, save a lot." And when children are trapped, they tend to risk a lot.

    Relying on their training, experience and equipment, firefighters will go into burning buildings, the thought of a possible collapse only part of their mental calculations.

    But when things go wrong - and they do - and firefighters die in the line of duty, there will be questions - questions that might seem harsh when ashes are still smoldering and grief is so fresh.

    Did the firefighters have enough training and the right equipment? Was manpower sufficient? Did the chain of command and lines of communications work? Was there something about the structure of the building or the nature of the fire that contributed to the collapse?

    These questions and more are bound to come up in the days and weeks ahead as officials look at the Fourth of July disaster that claimed the lives of three firefighters and three little girls in Gloucester City.

    But with fire officials yesterday still trying to determine what caused the blaze and preparing to bury their dead, they say now is not the time for questions.

    Still, the state firefighters union is calling for a federal investigation of the fire and is asking Gov. McGreevey to establish a task force to study professional and volunteer firefighting in the state.

    "Some people would rather we not talk about [an investigation] now," said Thomas Canzanella, president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey. "But we had an accident in what is our workplace. All we're saying is that we want to know if inadequacies in the workplace contributed to the deaths."

    He said the union, whose members include the 25 paid members of the Gloucester City department, wants to know if enough firefighters were on hand to fight the fire before the collapse.

    Fire officials at the scene have not raised the same questions or commented on the concerns.

    The blaze and collapse escalated to eight alarms and brought scores of firefighters - volunteers from surrounding communities and professionals from Camden and Philadelphia - to the blue-collar waterfront town beneath the Walt Whitman Bridge.

    But John Buckman, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, questioned the union's motivations.

    "If the union is using this incident to bolster their cause for more firefighters, I am extremely disappointed they would sensationalize the deaths of these firefighters for their gain," said Buckman, who is traveling to South Jersey for the funerals of the firefighters.

    For now, there are bare details.

    About 1:30 a.m. Thursday, a fire was reported in a wood-frame duplex at 200 and 202 North Broadway and at one point eight firefighters bravely strode into a blazing building, looking for three girls trapped inside.

    Among the firefighters were Chief James E. Sylvester, 31, and Deputy Chief John D. West, 41, of the Mount Ephraim Volunteer Fire Department. Both had taught fire and rescue techniques at the Camden County Fire Academy and had about four decades of experience between them.

    The death of the three firefighters was among the largest local losses of firefighters in a single fire in decades. Three died in the One Meridian Plaza fire of 1991 in Center City Philadelphia, and eight died in 1975 in the Gulf Oil refinery fire in the city.

    Anthony Stagliano, a former Mount Ephraim chief and its administrative officer, said the town's first two units at the scene each carried six firefighters.

    During the search, part of the building collapsed. Commanders on the street had barely sounded the signal for a retreat - a three-tone alert transmitted to the radio units firefighters generally carry near their collars and sounded on truck horns - when the 21/2-story structure tumbled down in shower of splintering wood and flames about 2:10 a.m.

    Four firefighters were pulled out of the rubble hurt, but alive. They are William Bates, Mark Campanell and Harry Smith of the Mount Ephraim Fire Department and Robert Williams Jr. of the Gloucester City Fire Department. Officials say a fifth firefighter, Gerald Cantlin of the Mount Ephraim department, was also trapped but managed to free himself by either jumping or climbing out a window.

    But three others - Sylvester, West and Gloucester City Firefighter Thomas G. Stewart III, 30, who had proposed to his fiancee only hours before - did not survive.

    The girls they had hoped to rescue also died. They were Alexandra Slack, 5, and her 3-year-old twin sisters, Claudia and Colletta, who had moved with their parents from Philadelphia in recent months.

    The girls' father, Frank Slack, 27, escaped through a second-floor window. Firefighters rescued their mother, Katia Williamson, 23, before the collapse. She suffered burns and was reported in critical but stable condition at Crozer-Chester Medical Center in Delaware County.

    Two of the rescued firefighters were found in a narrow gap between a sofa and television that held up a collapsed wall, Stagliano said.

    "The sofa and the television are a major part of why they're walking today," he said.

    Hours after the fire, a smoke alarm could still be heard in the rubble.

    In Gloucester City and Mount Ephraim - and for firefighters around the region - the Fourth of July turned from a day for celebration to a day of mourning.

    "Firefighters do not accept failure," said Buckman of the chiefs' association. "It is extremely emotional for a firefighter to arrive on the scene where people are trapped, especially children. Firefighters will go above the call of duty to try and locate, remove and save that child.

    "It's real easy to second-guess the decision made by the incident commander, but in my opinion, civilian life was at risk, and he made the right choice," he said.

    But Canzanella, who has firsthand experience of another deadly collapse, said questions will emerge that will have to be answered.

    Now a captain in the Hackensack Fire Department, Canzanella was a firefighter when five colleagues were killed July 1, 1988, in the collapse of a roof at a burning car dealership.

    "They were all guys I looked up to," he said.

    In the days and months after the fire there were investigations and a push for legislation to standardize training for firefighters throughout the state.

    The probes found that the wood truss design of the roof was a major factor in the collapse but they also pointed to a lack of training, poor decision-making, and inadequate equipment in the deadly turn of events.

    Nothing came of efforts to standardize training.

    Canzanella said the union was pushing for legislation that would require professional firefighters to receive standardized training and be certified. He said the training should be made available to volunteers.

    "I did not agree to die in the line of duty when I signed on to the job 20 years ago - no firefighter does," said Canzanella said.

    Calling fire-fighting a "team effort," he said complications can set in when firefighters from different departments with different levels of training respond to a blaze.

    "Everything is choreographed at a fire," Canzanella said. "We have to take a close, hard look at what we do in New Jersey."

    Harry Tomlin, a former Gloucester City firefighter who lives across the street from the ruined home, said it would be good to have more professional firefighters, but it would be too costly.

    "This town could not afford any more," Tomlin said. "This is a poor community. We can't afford 18 more firefighters - no one around here could. The volunteers work real well with the paid department. They bust their butts."

    Contact Joseph A. Gambardello at 856-779-3868 or Inquirer staff writer Elisa Ung and Jake Wagman and Kristen A. Graham of the Inquirer suburban staff contributed to this article.

    This memorial across the street from the site of the fire has grown steadily. Inquirer photos by Chris Viola.

  15. #15
    Administrator Neil's Avatar
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    Dec 2001
    South West

    IAFF Raises Staffing Issue in Gloucester City, NJ Firefighter Deaths

    IAFF Raises Staffing Issue in Gloucester City, NJ Firefighter Deaths

    The Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey/IAFF have released the following statements related to the tragic deaths of three firefighters in Gloucester City, NJ. is posting these comments for informational purposes.

    New Jersey Representative, IAFF

    In deference to the family and friends of the heroic firefighters who made the Supreme Sacrifice in the early morning hours of Thursday, July 4th, we will refrain from any further commentary until following their respective internment's are completed.

    Inside the Gloucester City Tragedy

    We remain steadfast in our observations and assertions that woefully inadequate staffing during the initial and ongoing firefighting and rescue stages of the fire, by any standard of measure employed by the Fire Service, played an intrinsic part in the demise of both firefighters and citizens alike. That said, official contacts with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Governor's Office and the New Jersey Department of Labor have been formally conducted as of this morning highlighting our specific concerns.

    For those who might criticize our assertions as somehow detracting from the deeds and sacrifices of these heroic firefighters we explain simply-

    Our firefighters, families and friends know the dangers of our vocation even under the very best of circumstances. They understand all too well how those dangers are exacerbated by inadequate staffing, training and equipment. More than anything, else they know that firefighters deaths in the performance of their duties are more note and news worthy than the actual causation of their demise. IT IS ENTIRELY TOO EASY AND CONVENIENT TO ATTRIBUTE SUCH TO BEING INHERENT TO OUR PROFESSION! Inadequacies in staffing, training and equipment pre-existed within the Gloucester City Fire Department. They were well documented and definable in nature and content, and NO ONE seemed to care enough to address them.

    The truth be told, we have your attention now. In the days, weeks and months following this tragedy will anyone care? History says otherwise. There are people who don't even want to hear about the September 11th attacks and in particular, the demise of those 343 firefighters. City officials, legislators-the folks whose collective care results in tangible change in our working conditions are paying attention right now. Or will we wait for the next time. And next time will most certainly come. It does on average nationwide (100) times annually for professional firefighters.

    As far as prosecutors or anyone else who feels it inappropriate that we talk about the REAL reasons firefighters die, and in particular the events in Gloucester City, I say this - Until you carry your very best friends from the rubble pile that was their final resting place, until you look their mothers, fathers, wives, sons and daughters in the face the first moment they find out that the center of their universe will not return to their loving arms-you lack the qualifications to comment upon what we do or how we do it.

    We are not missionaries, we are not thrill seekers nor hobbyists. The days of "Bucket Brigades" are long since gone. Firefighting is every bit a science and an unforgiving adversary. The same buildings in Gloucester City exist in Camden, Trenton, Paterson, Newark Jersey City , Hackensack and throughout this State. It's the same fire that races through them.

    It was a different kind of wood that crushed the life from those firefighters and children and it wasn't a different kind of heat or smoke that choked the life from their bodies. This is not a volunteer issue or a professional issue. Anyone that takes that tact knowing the facts in this incident is not a firefighter and isn't for us or our families.

    When the embers cool and the first shovel of dirt hits the box -- it's all over -- until the next time

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