PATERSON – The final toll of a fire that hit a part of Grand Street early Friday: Four buildings burnt and waterlogged, 37 residents displaced, four street-level stores damaged, one firefighter slightly injured.
But the tragedy also affected an entire neighborhood of residents who have made the block between Mill Street and Marshall Street part of daily life. And Friday afternoon, many gathered to linger near the four-alarm fire scene, shaking their heads and expressing sympathy for victims, especially merchants, they’d come to know by name.
The blaze, still of undetermined origin late Friday afternoon, tore through four multi-story buildings that included a bodega, a bail bonds business, a barbershop, a money transfer firm and an appliance store, with two floors of apartments above.
City and police officials said it appeared many of the burned-out residents seemed to have found shelter with relatives and friends and none had requested help from the Red Cross.
A major victim of the blaze was Grand Grocery, a bodega that was gutted by fire and that many said was a life line in the mostly Spanish-speaking neighborhood.
“Grand Grocery is a big part of this community” said Raymond Byrd, 47, a local businessman. “While the important thing was that no one was hurt, the store will be missed.”
The term “good person” was repeated over and over as locals described their relationship with the store and its owner, Ramon Vidal.
“The guy who owns Grand Grocery is a great guy, a family guy whose store is the center of this community,” said Mike Jackson, owner of Jacksonville restaurant directly across the street from 324 Grand Street.
Nelson Mercado, 28, store manager of Rigo’s Dayton and a frequent customer at Grand Grocery, said that everyone in the neighborhood had a good relationship with the Vidals.
“You work hard all your life for what you got and then all of the sudden you have to start over,” said Mercado, who wished the best for Vidal and his family.
Friends said the Vidals were too emotional to comment on the loss of their store. Vidal’s wife could be seen in a nearby doorway surrounded by friends and neighbors trying to console her.
The 1:45 a.m. fire started in a three-story building at 324 Grand St. and quickly escalated to a fourth alarm. Six other towns were called to help fight the blaze. It was extinguished by 4:30 a.m. As of Friday mid-afternoon, the scene of the fire remained closed while police continued a routine investigation, said city police Lt. Alex Popov. He said there was a possibility the street could reopen during the evening.
The fire’s initial moments, officials said, were marked with acts of heroism by sheriff’s officers from the nearby Passaic County Jail, who were on the scene first.
Corrections Officer Jason Ekkers, who also is a volunteer firefighter, was flagged down by a woman who said her baby and family were still inside 324 Grand St. Ekkers went into the burning building, grabbed the elderly woman and pulled her outside while carrying the baby, sheriff’s spokesman William Maer said. Ekkers and four other corrections officers then evacuated 322 Grand St., getting five people and a dog out without harm.
“This is an example of quick-thinking officers, selflessly serving the public,” county Sheriff Richard H. Berdnik said afterward. “Because of the brave actions of these officers and Paterson fire, EMS and police, a major catastrophe was avoided and potentially lives were saved.”
Fire units from Passaic, Clifton, Wayne, Woodland Park, Hawthorne, and Totowa all assisted Paterson. Fire officials on Friday afternoon had not released the identity of the one injured firefighter. Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Murray initially said the firefighter had suffered an injured shoulder in a fall.
Fire officials said that all displaced residents declined Red Cross aid and went to stay with friends or family. Donna Ivy, director of Paterson‘s Department of Health and Human Services, said Mayor Jeffery Jones has directed the fire department to inform her and her staff when individuals need to be relocated after fires. However, if the residents affected by Friday’s fire subsequently need longer-term housing or other assistance, Ivy said, the responsibility would lie with the landlord because the damaged buildings were privately owned.
“They [fire victims] can turn to the city for referral information, but it [relocation] is the responsibility of the landlord,” said Ivy.
She added that the city could refer residents to non-profit organizations, churches or social services depending on the individual circumstance. Ivy added the city government also can act as a liaison between residents and community efforts to help them.
Staff photographer Tariq Zehawi and staff writer Carol Lawrence contributed to this story.
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