Firefighters from many Union County towns continue to help the Elizabeth Fire Department battle a seven-alarm blaze that has been burning for more than 21 hours straight in a landmark Newark Avenue warehouse Wednesday afternoon.
From 4:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. Thursday, the fire produced thick black smoke that smelled like melting plastic. At about 6:30, red embers began mingling with the smoke, eventually giving way to streaks of red-orange flames bursting through the smoke pouring from the roof.
The fire began at about 4 p.m. Wednesday in the basement of the old Burry Biscuits factory. At 4:47 a.m. Thursday, the blaze was upgraded to seven-alarm status after explosions and heavy smoke conditions were reported.
Officials said no injuries have been reported and there is no immediate hazard from the smoke.
Elizabeth Deputy Fire Chief Carl Heitmeyer said the building started roughly 12 hours early was the result of a car fire in the basement of the warehouse at 819 Newark Ave, which has been rented to several businesses.
Heitmeyer said a car fire at a loading dock in the basement of the building triggered the blaze in the five-story building's basement. He added that firefighters filled the building with foam to to sap oxygen from the air in order to bring the fire under control, but , he expects the fire to burn until Friday morning.
Little progress was made overnight, he said.
The back of the building has begun to collapse, halting any efforts to get firefighters inside the building for fear the building's structural integrity is not strong enough.
Fire departments from Clark, Cranford, Linden, Springfield, Newark, Roselle Park, Union and Jersey City are at the scene, totaling 75 firefighters. The departments responded through a mutual aid agreement, and a foam-truck from Linden Fire Department was used at the scene.
The companies have been switching out periodically for relief. Ten fire fighters from Clark were sent in two five-person shifts starting at 5 p.m., said Fire Chief Andrew Beach.
Heitmeyer said poor the thick smoke restricted firefighters' visibility in the warehouse, keeping them from reaching the center of the building and extinguishing the fire where it started.
Firefighters set up a stand behind the building for coffee, food and a place to rest between bouts with the blaze. One firefighter from Roselle arrived back at the scene by 6 a.m. Thursday, after working from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday.
"This fire just won't die," another firefighter said.
The building, which extends four blocks from north to south and two blocks east to west, is the former site of the Burry's Biscuits, a landmark cookie and cracker maker and a staple in the Elizabeth business community. Established in 1936, the company was well known for making Scooter Pies, Gaucho peanut-butter cookies and Fudge Town chocolate cookies. It also began making Girl Scout cookies in 1944. The company eventually was bought by Quaker Oats and then sold to a French company in 1981.
Fire crews from Cranford arrived at the scene at approximately 4 p.m. yesterday, not long after the fire began, according to Capt. Wesley Ditzel. At least two firefighters also responded to Elizabeth's fire headquarters to provide additional coverage as crews from the neighboring city continued to battle the blaze.
At 10 p.m. Wednesday night, Ditzel said the Cranford crews that responded were being released from the scene. At that time, it was believed that the fire was almost under control. Authorities now speculate that the blaze could continue to burn until sometime Friday morning.
The building recently had been broken up into 10 docking stations. The fire is contained to the northern end of the building to just two of the docks. However, according to fire officials at the scene, the concern is that much of the materials in the warehouse are made of plastic, which makes the fire particularly difficult to fight because the materials can ignite quickly.
One firefighter, who asked not to be identified for the story, said that basement fires pose great difficulty to firefighters as the heat rises through the building and makes it hard for firefighters to contain the blaze.
Fire officials said the presence of plastics, and other vehicles, are a volatile mix. Combined with the massive size of the building, they anticipated many local companies would be on the scene throughout the day on Friday.
Late Wednesday night, Sam Willis, operator of a shipping company that rents one of the docks, was hosting the company Christmas party inside the building, when he said he heard sirens and saw flashing lights outside the window.
"We were eating and a firefighter came in and told us to leave, so we've been standing here, watching ever since," he said as he and his co-workers attempted to estimate where their dock ended and the one engulfed in flames began.
Willis called the massive, mostly vacant building, "perfect for a horror film.
"I knew it was a big deal when I saw how many trucks are here," he said. "I've never seen so many in my life."