Avalon at Edgewater – The Politics of Fire

January 30, 2015 Updated: January 30, 2015

Preventable Tragedy

As an engineer and former fire commissioner, I was appalled at the way the Edgewater tragedy unfolded, even if I wasn’t surprised.

As the former council liaison to the Tenafly Fire Department, I have a soft spot in my heart for firefighters and I feel that the type of construction used at the Avalon is too dangerous. Bergen County is no stranger to horrific tragedies from truss frame roofs.  The Ford Fire in Hackensack, where 5 firefighters died was infamous. The reason no firefighters died at the Avalon was because of the lessons learned from the Ford fire. The Edgewater Fire Department did an incredible job saving lives at Avalon, but they should have been called immediately.

Dirty Politics

There is more to this story and why people are calling for an investigation. My last blog about Liberty State Park and the insatiable greed of developers along NJ’s Gold Coast mentioned Edgewater as a classic case. I also specifically mentioned the builder of the Avalon complex. Politically connected Edgewater developer Fred Diabes, who has filled Edgewater with most of its new construction, as well provided Veteran’s field with contaminated dirt.

The problem is that politically connected developers like Daibes own banks like Mariner  that give out unsecured loans to people like Land Use Attorney Joe Ferriero, the former Chairman of the Bergen County Democratic Organization, whose cohort, land use Attorney Dennis Oury was the Edgewater Borough attorney during a lot of the construction, before both men were indicted by Chris Christie for corruption.

Even newly elected County Executive Tedesco, present at the Edgewater fire press conference, was recently a recipient of a small amount of campaign cash from Fred Daibes. There may be political pressure exerted on him to go easy on Daibes and Avalon even though Tedesco is a firefighter himself. As a firefighter, I trust he’ll do the right thing and fight for safer residential construction for Bergen County.

Christie Cred

Christie wants the Edgewater fire investigated and showed up in Edgewater even though he is rarely in NJ anymore. Christie may be looking at this as a chance to redeem his corruption fighting cred.  Joe Ferriero’s racketeering trial is set to start on February 2. It’s Groundhog Day, the second time may be the charm that puts Ferriero away. Christie indicted Ferriero the first time and rode to Drumthwackett on that conviction. Sadly, after Ferriero was convicted Christie decided to make deals with Ferriero’s counterpart in South Jersey, Democrat George Norcross, to get elected. And the NJ press noticed. That combined with Bridegate called Christie’s corruption busting cred into question. If Christie times a presidential run announcement, I would not be surprised if it happens during Joe’s trial. Perhaps he is hoping to go back to that well again to get his corruption busting cred back. Fighting possible Edgewater corruption may provide Christie an opportunity to restore his reputation. 

Low Rise is so Yesterday

The suspicion of some folks in Bergen County that the fire was allowed to spread intentionally before the Fire Department was called comes from the fact that Diabes was lamenting in the press in the past few years, the fact that there was no more buildable land left in Edgewater, which is why he just had to build on the formerly contaminated site of the Alcoa plant that he promised by deed restriction that would never be built on with residential construction. That pressure to develop is causing high rises to be proposed under the Palisades, not just on top. That pressure which caused the development of the contaminated Alcoa site was involved in the Veteran’s Field fiasco. It was recently determined his company just took contaminated material from Alcoa and used it as fill in Veterans Field where children used to play Tee ball, and the town used to hold it’s annual fireworks display. The field looks like an absolute disaster on a par with the now smoldering site of Avalon.  

Benefit of the Doubt

Giving Daibes the benefit of the doubt, which is difficult since his company is frequently in environmental hot water, and the same development burned to the ground only 14 years ago, the fire could have been an accident.  However, comments are swirling in the local papers that the delay in calling the fire department may not have been an accident.  The land is just too valuable right now to merely have low rise construction on. They already started clearing the site. That was awfully fast.  Considering there should be a full investigation. The fact that the County Executive, refused to answer reporters asking if the workers who started the fire were qualified was unsettling.

Action Needed

Aside from the political intrigue that may be involved in this tragedy, there is a lot more that needs discussion, and action to remedy. Assembly Speaker Prieto is already calling for possible laws that may prevent another tragedy.  Over the centuries, building codes have been changed as tragedies unfolded. I think this should be a call to prevent apartment building over 3 stories from being lightweight frame.  Also, fire walls should continue to the roof.  An open attic space is an open invitation for disaster. 

“Light-weight” Construction

The Edgewater firefighters repeatedly mentioned the fact that if the building had not been built of “lightweight construction” the fire would not have escalated to such an epic event that it was visible from Manhattan. Firefighters absolutely hate lightweight construction and thin truss roofs. They’ve known too many firefighters have lost their lives when these roofs collapse.  Some wood structures can more easily withstand a fire.  So the term “lightweight” is used rather than simply “wood”.  Because it is a question of what size wood is used.  Heavy timber construction – like a cathedral is considered very safe.  It takes a very long time for a 12″ x  12″ beam or column to fail.  In some cases, a heavy timber beam will last longer than a steel beam in a hot fire.  Folks were skeptical during 9/11 that a steel building could fail from fire.  I assure you, they certainly can. In some cases a large timber frame can still support a structure even if the outside of the beam is scorched, while an exposed steel beam may fail much sooner by wilting. I always thought if I was going to build my own house, it would be heavy timber frame, not stick frame or steel. Here is some information on that. 

However, a 2 x 4 is like a toothpick. The actual dimension of the wood in a 2 x 4 is less than 2 inches. It’s basically a stick. That’s nothing. Everyone understands that a fireplace log takes a lot longer to burn than kindling. A wall constructed of 2 x 4’s will fail quickly. The “lightweight construction” used in the Avalon buildings is fretfully all too common. Apartment buildings should be made of brick, like they used to be, or cinderblock, and the vinyl siding should be outlawed because it burns like a plastic bag thrown onto a campfire. Plastic is a petroleum product after all. 

NJ Legislature Needs to Act

The NJ Legislature should follow Speaker Prieto’s lead.  Just because the law allows some things, like lightweight construction in apartment buildings and vinyl siding, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. State legislatures need to really examine these safety issues and demand better laws, to protect citizens, whether politically connected builders like them or not.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.