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New Jersey is no stranger to catastrophe. From the Hindenburg Disaster to Hurricane Sandy, residents of the Garden State have witnessed much over the years. Regardless of the tragedy, however, New Jerseyans will meet the challenge head-on. From first responders who work on the scene to save lives and property, to elected officials in Trenton who advocate for more rigorous codes and safety laws, and all the way down to good Samaritans who are at the right place at the right time, Garden State residents have always banded together to respond to a tragedy and rebuild.

This article will focus on five catastrophic fires in New Jersey history. While New Jersey has come a long way in terms of life safety and standards, recent fires demonstrate that we have a long way to go if we hope to save lives and property in the Garden State.

The 1900 Hoboken Docks Fire

The 1900 Hoboken Docks fire occurred on June 30, 1900 and claimed at least 326 lives. The fire started when cotton bales at a wharf caught fire. Winds carried the flames to barrels of flammable liquids, causing them to explode, burning numerous piers down as well as several nearby warehouses and several boats.

Many of the victims of this fire were sailors and dockworkers, but a significant portion included women who were visiting a moored ship before the fire started. Since many of the victims were burned beyond recognition or missing entirely, a memorial was erected on the first anniversary of the fire to commemorate those lost.

In the wake of this fire, the piers were rebuilt to be larger and more fireproof. Additionally, since many crew members below deck several of the ships were unable to escape, regulations were passed mandating that portholes be large enough to serve as a means of escape.

The Garden State Park Racetrack Fire

On April 14, 1977, a fire broke out in a restaurant kitchen at the Garden State Park Racetrack in Cherry Hill. The fire burned undetected for several minutes while patrons and staff watched a racing program. Thankfully, the structure of the racetrack held out long enough, so it did not collapse while the patrons were unaware. All 11,000 patrons were able to escape the blaze; however, not everyone made it out in time: one patron and one employee were found in the rubble of the fire, and one fire officer died of a heart attack on the scene.

While the fire did not spread to neighboring buildings, it reduced the racetrack to nothing more than a smoking pile of rubble, and—despite it being rebuilt in 1985—the racetrack never matched its previous glory and was eventually closed and demolished.

The Six Flags Great Adventure Fire

Our next fire occurred on May 11, 1984 at a haunted attraction at Great Adventure in Jackson. The fire is said to have started when a patron used a lighter to see in a darkened hallway, though this was never confirmed. Regardless of how the fire started, patrons who first noticed it thought it was part of the attraction. The fire spread so rapidly that it took eleven fire departments from surrounding communities to get it under control. Tragically, no one realized that any lives were lost until later that evening when the bodies of eight teenagers were discovered. The victims were burnt so badly that they were unrecognizable at first.

The investigation in the wake of this tragedy brought several oversights to light. Chief among them were a lack of a building permit, a certificate of occupancy, and fire sprinklers and smoke detectors. A state panel in charge of investigating the fire found that the several regulatory systems overseeing this attraction failed on nearly every level.

A separate article can most likely be written on the legislation that followed in the wake of the Great Adventure fire, but a summation will have to do: several of the victims’ family members settled out of court, and a jury found the two companies in charge of the attraction not guilty on charges of aggravated manslaughter.

The finger pointing between park executives and fire officials did little to diminish the tragedy of the eight lives lost in this fire. However, the Great Adventure fire brought about several changes on the state level regarding amusement parks, specifically dark rides. This fire also demonstrated to several business owners throughout the country the potentially catastrophic outcome of not including fire sprinklers and smoke detectors in a building.

In the following year, Six Flags would invest over $5 million in fire sprinklers and smoke detectors.   

The Hackensack Ford Dealership Fire

This 1988 fire led to several departmental changes and served as a case study that ultimately changed firefighting tactics nationwide. When a fire broke out at a Ford Dealership in Hackensack, fire crews treated it as a routine call. Unbeknownst to the responders in the building, a portion of the fire was in the truss above the ceiling. Responders outside eventually noticed this truss fire and sent warning to the firefighters in the building, however no acknowledgement was sent back, and the roof then collapsed, killing three firefighters. Two more firefighters inside were able to escape into another part of the building, but eventually succumbed to smoke.

The Hackensack Ford Dealership fire claimed the lives of five firefighters and led to monumental changes nationwide in firefighting strategy in terms of command, equipment, and communication.

Perhaps the Hackensack Fire Department sums this fire up best:

“This fire, the worst tragedy to befall this department, caused sweeping changes in many aspects of firefighting not only in Hackensack, but the whole country.”

The Seton Hall Fire

Also known as the Boland Hall fire, the Seton Hall fire occurred at an on-campus dormitory on January 19, 2000. The fire was initially started as a prank early in the morning when most students were asleep. The fire spread rapidly, and by the time students were alerted to it, it had grown exponentially. The fire burned so intensely that it caused the carpet to melt, leading to severe injuries for students who had to crawl due to the smoke. There were also reports of students jumping out of windows over 40 feet high to escape.

The Seton Hall fire claimed the lives of three students and injured 56 students, police officers, and firefighters. Two students were tried and convicted in the wake of this fatal fire.

This senseless tragedy galvanized the state and led to elected officials passing legislation that required all dormitories to be equipped with fire sprinklers within four years. To this day, several survivors of the Seton Hall fire travel the country spreading the message of fire education and healing in the wake of tragedy.

Progress and Growth from Loss

Many of the fires mentioned in this article were recent, though some may have been so long ago that no living person remembers those tragically lost. Whether it was a century ago or one year ago, one thing remains the same: nearly all fire deaths are preventable.

In the wake of these tragedies it is perhaps best to remember the first responders who minimized losses, the public that banded together, and the elected officials that listened to them. While the lives lost from these fires were ultimately preventable, they were not in vain. Each fire brought gaps in codes and standards to light and would eventually highlight more effective means of fire protection, namely smoke detectors and fire sprinklers—just to name a few. And while fire sprinklers are not required in all occupancies in the state of New Jersey, fire safety professionals will continue to fight for their inclusion.