Heights climbs back after fire
By Richard Cowen, Staff Writer
Hasbrouck Heights -- Page by page, file by file, and milk crate by milk crate, municipal employees are slowly putting the town back together following the disastrous fire that destroyed Borough Hall on Dec. 10.
The smell of charred rubble still clings to the stacks of documents that arrive each day at the "new" Borough Hall set up in the old First Union bank office at 218-222 Boulevard. Most of these documents have been damaged by water and are headed for the basement, where workers separate them and lay them on the floor to dry.
"Theyre smoky, smelly, and dirty, but it appears that everything that we need has been saved," said Conchita Parker, the borough tax collector. "All in all, weve been very lucky."
Parker made her remarks while standing behind the bulletproof glass that once protected First Union tellers. These quarters will serve as the boroughs makeshift offices for at least a year, probably longer.
Gone are the private offices that borough employees once enjoyed.
"Were elbow to elbow, but at least we know each other," Parker said.
The new site may be temporary, but only time will tell whether the smoky odor that hangs on documents will be a permanent reminder of the back-to-back disasters in December.
Tragedy first struck the borough around 5 p.m. on Dec. 9, when a twin-engine plane bound for Teterboro Airport crashed into a back yard off Central Avenue, killing the pilot and three passengers. No one on the ground died, but Hasbrouck Heights spent the next 24 hours putting out the fire and working with the Federal Aviation Administration to clear the wreckage.
The next night, the Hasbrouck Heights Council met at Borough Hall to discuss the crash. Hours after the meeting ended, a fire began in the council chambers and quickly spread to the attic. Fanned by 20-mph winds and fueled by thousands of dusty documents stored in the attic, the fire destroyed the building and routed the Fire and Police departments from the first floor.
The fire destroyed the building. As soon as the smoke cleared, Hasbrouck Heights officials had to find some way to keep the government running -- even if there was no place to go -- and make room for even more paperwork.
"The morning after the fire, everyone came to work," said Borough Administrator Michael Kronyak. "No one had to be told. Everyone was exhausted, but everybody had given 1,000 percent. We all did what we had to do."
For a week, Borough Hall operated out of a gymnasium across the street, until the council leased the First Union building for $1,000 a month, Kronyak said. The Fire Department and the Rescue Squad moved to the Kundert Volvo dealership on Terrace Avenue. The Police Department remains in its trailer across the street from the fire site.
As problems arose, people pitched in to help, often donating their services. Councilman Garrett Pepe made sure the heat was on and the toilets worked at all the new locales. Much of the furniture was donated by OKI, a Hackensack company that was liquidating its furniture stock. Poinsettias and Christmas decorations arrived at the makeshift Borough Hall from two florists in town, Bill OShea and Heights Florists.
Police Chief Mike Colaneri said that in a small way, the cramped trailer has improved morale on the squad. "Tragedy seems to have a way of bringing people together," he said.
In the days immediately after the fire, Kronyak said his most pressing concern was keeping the books balanced -- even if he didnt know exactly whether any of the books had survived the fire. "Our most pressing concern was to keep paying our bills and keep making payroll." Kronyak said.
A month later, workers are still sifting through the rubble, and it remains uncertain whether Borough Hall will be razed. So far, the boroughs insurance company has not completed its damage estimate, which is expected to include several million dollars in damage to the building structure, furnishings, and equipment.
In the meantime, Kronyak estimates, the borough has spent $75,000 to $85,000 having water-damaged records freeze-dried, with $30,000 to $40,000 more spent on overtime. The council authorized an emergency appropriation of $278,603 to cover costs.
The fiscal ledgers did suffer some water damage but were not destroyed. And Kronyak said the boroughs computer consultant spent days retrieving records from the hard drives.
Tax records are in order, as well, and the next quarterly payment is due Feb. 1. But because parking is scarce downtown, borough officials request that residents mail their payments to Borough Hall.
Some items, though, are gone forever. Recreation Director Andy Feintuch said the scrapbooks that he had been keeping since 1972 on borough youth programs were destroyed in the fire.
"The games will go on, and life will go on," Feintuch said. "But some things can never be replaced."
Somewhere amid the rubble of Borough Hall are the uniforms that Feintuch was going to use for the youth basketball and wrestling programs. They have been reordered, but Feintuch is asking youngsters who still have their uniforms from last year to use them again.
Feintuch is sponsoring a slogan contest, asking youths and adults to come up with a saying that will capture the spirit or Hasbrouck Heights recovery. The slogan will be sewn onto the new uniforms, Feintuch said.
Along Boulevard, the fire seems to have had little impact on the lives of residents. The planes still roar overhead, and the dank smell of smoke still wafts down Hamilton Avenue, but life appears to have returned to normal.
"You never hear about our town in the news," said Marielena Fowler, 17. "Ill bet half the people dont know where Hasbrouck Heights is."
The talk inside Gacciones barbershop last week was less about the fire and more about the fireworks following the resignation of former Jets coach -- and Hasbrouck Heights resident -- Bill Parcells.
"Theyve done the best they could," observed Vincent "Chez" Gaccione from his barbershop on Boulevard. "Whats a few parking spaces?" he added with a shrug.
The borough passed another milestone on its road to recovery last week. On Wednesday, Judge Harry H. Chandless Jr. convened the first Municipal Court session since Borough Hall burned down.
The courtroom was in the basement of the Masonic lodge at Boulevard and Division Street. The judges bench was a folding chair and card table. Behind him the court dockets lay on a pool table covered by a tarpaulin -- a far cry from the stately mahogany-paneled courtroom that went up in flames with the rest of Borough Hall.
Chandless kept his sense of humor as he grabbed a summons from the pile and held it aloft. The summons was grayed by soot, and water had warped the paper.
"The municipal building burned to the ground, but God saved all these summonses." Chandless joked. "Plus, the only other room that didnt burn down was the tax collectors office."
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