Garfield, New Jersey Firefighter Dies on Way to Blaze

As Published in The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Hundreds of Fair Lawn residents watched heartbroken Tuesday night as a 1920s landmark - the beloved commercial jewel of the Radburn neighborhood - disintegrated in flames.

An unidentified volunteer firefighter from Garfield died while driving to the blaze. He appeared to be the victim of a heart attack, authorities said.

There was no word on the cause of the fire. Fair Lawn police Sgt. Robert Boyle said there may have been injuries at the scene, but he had no details.

Fire at the Radburn Plaza Building, at Fair Lawn Avenue and Plaza Road, was first reported about 5 p.m. Six hours later, flames continued to shoot from the windows, consuming restaurants and shops on the ground floor and offices on the second and third.

The roof on the building's east side collapsed, and four aerial trucks assaulted a dull orange glow that shone through billowing waves of smoke.

Still, the building's copper-roofed clock tower stood intact, its hands frozen at 8:40.

All residents could do was watch, many with hands over their mouths in astonishment. Susan Sommer, who has lived in the borough for more than 30 years, recalled buying cherry Cokes from the plaza's soda shop and gazing through the jewelry shop window.

"I grew up here and this building has always been here," Sommer said. "It's sad."

Mayor David Ganz said residents will feel an emotional sting, and the borough will suffer economically.

"There was a bank, a pharmacy, a deli, a barber, law offices, an architect," Ganz said. "This is sad for the people that work there."

The Radburn Plaza Building, with its illuminated clock tower, was built in 1929. It was considered the commercial centerpiece of a pioneering planned community, dubbed "The Town for the Motor Age," which favored pedestrians over vehicular travel.

The Radburn building itself was the hub, functioning as both the market and meeting place for residents.

The recent buyers of the building spent more than $500,000 on renovations, including restoring the green awnings and canopies, authorities said.

As soon as they arrived on the scene Tuesday night, firefighters called for assistance. Companies from at least six communities responded.

Scores of firefighters stabbed the roof, hunting for hidden pockets of fire, while aerial trucks sent water through smashed windows.

The firefighter who died on the way to the scene was a 22-year veteran of Garfield Engine 1, officials said.

In a statement, Garfield Fire Chief John Keating Jr. said the firefighter was en route to Fair Lawn in his personal vehicle when he was stricken. No other details of his death were available late Tuesday.

Officials declined to release the victim's name, saying they were trying to contact relatives who were out of the area.

Members of Engine 1 were encouraged to return to their headquarters when they learned of their colleague's death, officials said.

"Everybody's kind of basically in shock," said one Garfield firefighter.

Staff Writer Lindy Washburn contributed to this report.

Copyright 2002 - North Jersey Media Group