Sprinkler Lack Dooms Armory Used as Trenton, N.J., Civic Center

Sprinkler Lack Dooms Armory Used as Trenton, N.J., Civic Center

The Civic Center in Trenton, N.J., a steel frame and brick wall building constructed as an armory, was destroyed by a four-alarm fire that endangered the City Hall 70 feet away.

When the city took over the old armory about seven years ago and remodeled it for use as an auditorium and an annex to City Hall, Deputy Chief Vicent Pompeii, head of the fire prevention bureau of the Trenton Fire Department, recommended to Mayor Carmen Armenti that a sprinkler system be installed throughout the building. The mayor rejected this recommendation as “too expensive.”

During the remodeling, the basement was partitioned with plywood to create office and storage areas. The partitions did not extend to the ceiling. A carpenter shop and a paint shop were in the basement along with a large storage area for tax records. The auditorium floor was of heavy timber construction and a balcony contained offices for the Departments of Public Safety, Health and Welfare, and Planning, and the electrical and plumbing inspectors.

Smoke reported

Shortly before midnight last July 15, a phone call to the fire alarm office reported smoke in the vicinity of the 272 X 208-foot Civic Center at Armory Drive and Steward Alley. Three engine and two ladder companies were dispatched under the command of Chief Leonard Zola of the 2nd battalion.

When Zola reached the Civic Center, two maintenance men told him that they had smelled smoke inside. As the chief entered the building, he found light smoke in the foyer and a light blue haze hanging like a cloud above the auditorium floor.

Engines 1 and 10 were instructed to stretch 2 ½ -inch hose lines and enter the basement through the foyer. Zola moved to the south side of the building to enter the basement which was mostly above grade on this side. He was met by Captain Frank Apgar of Engine 2, who told him that basement was heavily charged with smoke. Zola requested fire alarm to dispatch Engine 5 to fill out the box and one minute later, he requested a second alarm.

Twisted steel and fallen walls are all that remain of old armory that has been remodeled for a civic center.

Trenton Times photos by Warren Kruse

Civic Center in Trenton, N.J., is consumed by flames contained by master streams. One turret of old armory is Still Standing

Trenton Times photo by Warren Kruse.

Battalion Chief Joseph Stein and Deputy Chief Robert Kerr responded with three more engine companies and another ladder. Zola made his way into the basement with Engine 2, and the smoke was traced to the carpenter shop. There was no visible fire, but when Zola felt the door to the shop, it was extremely hot. He instructed Engines 2 and 5 to stretch charged 2½-inch lines to the door and to don breathing apparatus before opening the door.

Inferno in carpenter shop

When they did, the carpenter shop was a roaring inferno for as far as they could see. Simultaneously, the windows on the south side of the building “lit up” for almost the entire length of the building. Zola ordered the companies to withdraw, and at the same time, Engines 1 and 10 were driven out of the building without ever having seen fire. The fire floor was completely shut down by smoke as ventilation equipment was overpowered.

Kerr ordered a third alarm struck out, and an exterior attack started. Five 2 ½ -inch lines were set up and operated through barred windows on the south side.

Chief of Department Daniel George responded on the third alarm and took command of operations. After consulting with Kerr and learning of the situation in the basement, George ordered the fourth alarm, which brought all of Trenton’s nine engine and four ladder companies to the fire, as well as mutual aid companies.

Colonial Fire Company and DeCou of nearby Hamilton Township, Mercerville, Slackwood, and two companies from Morrisville, Pa., responded to the call for mutual aid to the fireground.

The fire progressed rapidly through the building and in a short time broke through the roof. It moved so quickly that Engines 1 and 10 had to move their pumpers back from the fire, and Ladders 1 and 3 had to be temporarily shut down from ladder pipe operations and moved. In all, four ladder pipes and Trenton’s and Slackwood’s elevating platforms were pressed into service to protect No. 1 exposure, City Hall.

City Hall protected

Lines were stretched to the City Hall roof and also into the building to be operated from windows to beat back the fire. The heat broke many windows in City Hall, but fire fighters succeeded in protecting the building.

Companies from surrounding towns covered all of Trenton’s fire stations during the fire, and one unit, DeCou, was summoned to fight a fire in a bar across Armory Drive and U.S. 1 that had started from flying embers. When it finished that job, DeCou joined the fight at the Civic Center.

During the height of the fire, U.S. 1 had to be shut down because of the sparks and the heavy smoke falling on the highway.

By the time city workers were due to report in the morning, the Civic Center was destroyed.

All of this might have been prevented if someone had heeded Pompeii’s recommendation for an automatic sprinkler system.

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