The TAP Mansion Fire
Friday July 6, 1990 saw the occurrence of one of the most spectacular fires in the history of the Borough. The fire consumed a large and prominent residence with an interesting history, and sparked considerable controversy. At the time of the incident, the County Fire Marshall called it the largest residential house fire in the history of the county.
Located on Bernardsville Road near the edge of town, the original structure was a Dutch Colonial farmhouse. It was acquired by W.S. Pyle, the proprietor of the Peerless Soap Company in the early part of the last century. Pyle began a renovation and expansion of the dwelling, expanding it to a mansion of 26,000 square feet and resided there for several decades.
After passing through two additional owners, in the 1950’s the property came into the hands of a trust operated by several religious groups and it was rented to several tenants who operated it as a retreat house. Among the tenants was a spiritual counseling group known as Association of Physiosynthesis (TAP) and after they rented the estate in 1976, the property became known as “The TAP Mansion”. The group moved out of the building in 1989 and it reverted to private ownership.
Working to restore the mansion to its former glory, the new owner began renovations, which included roof and gutter maintenance. At some point on the morning of the blaze, perhaps as early as 11:00 a.m., contractors working on the gutters in the rear of the building ignited a fire in the building’s rafters while using a torch. Rather than call the Fire Department, they attempted to extinguish the fire by themselves. A reconstruction of the time-line indicated that it was likely that the contractors worked to extinguish the fire for several hours before summoning help.
The initial call for help was made in mid-afternoon by cell phone. At that time, the “911” emergency system routed calls to the State Police. The call for assistance was inadvertently routed to another to another jurisdiction, and an additional delay ensued.
Confusion in the initial call for help further delayed the dispatch of the Department until mid-afternoon.
By the time that firefighters arrived, the attic of the building was heavily involved in fire. A brisk afternoon breeze had also come up, as well, fanning the quickly growing fire from the rear. The nature of the construction of the building including many voids in the walls and lots of dry timber created ideal circumstances for the fire. At the time of arrival, the entire attic cavity was involved and the fire was spreading rapidly.
Hydrant connections were made and lines stretched to begin the attack. It soon became evident, however, that the water flow requirements for defeating a fire of that size would overwhelm the capacity of the available hydrants. Borough firefighters made an initial attempt to defeat the fire in the attic, but the available water was soon exhausted. The interior attack was discontinued and defensive operations established.
Additional alarms were sent out to mutual aid companies who soon arrived. A pumper was put into service at a pond on Bliss Road, and a “relay pumping” operation ensued with the water being transmitted over a distance of more than a mile to the site of the fire. Mutual aid companies from ten companies included Mendham Township, Chester, Bernardsville, Far Hills/Bedminster, Morris Township’s Fairchild Fire Company, all responded – more than 150 firefighters in all.
By 8:00 p.m., the fire had completed its work, and chimneys and the foundation were all that remained of the once-elegant mansion. The Department remained at the scene until well after midnight. Controversy continued to follow the incident for some time, including an extensive police investigation and law suits against the Borough and the Contractor. Ultimately, the loss of the building was attributed to the delay in reporting and mismatch between the size of the fire and the available water supply. The TAP Mansion fire remains as a memory of a very unfortunate day in the minds of the 150 Firefighters who fought the blaze and the mansion’s new owners who saw their dreams destroyed.
Fires are devastating. They take lives, ruin personal possessions and erase family heirlooms from the face of the earth. Tragedy has a mystical way of pulling the residences and businesses in communities together. Mendham is not exempt from this phenomenon, and a perfect example of this is the Caroline Cleaners Dry Cleaners Fire on September 24, 1991. The fire was discovered at 3:15AM Saturday by a Borough Patrolman who noticed smoke steaming from a roof vent. Firefighters from the Mendham Independent Hook & Ladder Company responded and extinguished flames in about an hour. Although no one was injured, the blaze ignited clothing, melted equipment, and left a smoky odor in several neighboring stores. Al Bagin, the owner of Blue Ridge Pool Service Store allowed Mark Abramson, co-owner of the cleaners, to set up temporary shop which allowed him to process damage claims and maintain relations with patrons. Bagin was quoted as saying, “At least he has a place to hang his hat for a while.” This is the sentiment and the pull togetherness that has always been synonymous with the Mendham’s and its establishments and its residences.
In 1993, the Department replaced the 1973 Imperial “Quad” with a 1993 E-One “Quint”. The new “Quint”, known as “Ladder 83”, was the first aerial apparatus in the history of the Department, mounting an aluminum ladder of 75’ with an integrated piped “master stream” and 163 feet of ground ladders. Additionally, the vehicle boasts a 1500 gallon-per-minute pump and carries 800 feet of 3-inch hose, and 800 feet of 5-inch high volume supply line. The vehicle carries 500 gallons of water and is equipped with two “cross-lay” pre-connected attack lines, which make the vehicle highly versatile and very capable. The vehicle has an on-board generator for scene lighting and a “six man cab” required by modern fire standards.
The afternoon of June 12, 1996 saw another one of Mendham’s most notable fires. Chief Porter responded to the call on his way home from Chester and was taken back by the thick black billowing smoke in the distance on Route 24. Upon arrival, the back part of Mendham Motors was fully involved and had naturally ventilated itself. Initially, a blitz attack was attempted but had no real effect. Gasoline in the back shop was feeding the fire and the efforts of our men seemed futile. Numerous lines of large diameter hose were laid in the center of Mendham and the pond in the resident’s house across the street saw a Bernardsville pumper truck set up for drafting. Several of our neighboring mutual aid friends once again showed up to lend us a hand. Harrington Construction was eventually called to help demolish the North East corner of the building so that we could stop the free burning nature of the fire and extinguish whatever burning embers remained. The building was a total loss and saw the destruction of several classic cars that were housed within back portion of the building where the seat of the fire was located. Three vehicles in the showroom were saved by some of the men that were first on the scene. Due to the quick response of Mendham Fire Department and Mutual Aid companies, the entire front line of vehicles was able to be relocated elsewhere. The fire started as result of the improper siphoning of gasoline through en electric sum-pump. Green Village was called to set up lighting and several members stayed through the night to extinguish any areas that rekindled. The fire was nationally recognized by Firehouse Magazine addressed the need to protect surrounding exposures with a fire that size.
Tractor Trailer Fire
Danger can hide for years in familiar places, only to appear when least expected. That was certainly the case on August 7, 1997 at the Mendham Shopping Center.
A tractor-trailer making a delivery attempted to negotiate the alley way along the east side of the shopping plaza. Although similar trucks had successfully traveled the alley for many years, somehow this time the truck snagged overhead lines. A utility pole, which mounted electric transformers and switchgear, was pulled down and a fire was sparked. Oil from the transformers soon ignited, engulfing the tractor-trailer in a raging fire and endangering the rear of several stores that were only a few feet away from the inferno.
The Fire Department responded immediately, and with a rapid and aggressive attack, contained the fire and prevented its spread into the store building, and then extinguished the fire. Mutual aid for the transformer spill was provided by the Whippany Hazardous Materials Response Unit as a precaution against the chance that the transformer had been of the older type containing environmental contaminants; however, that proved not to be the case. Firefighting assistance was provided by our valued and always dependable mutual aid partners from Ralston.
Dikes were used at the scene of the incident to prevent run-off and turned over to the utility company for final clean up and repair of the down lines. The loss in the incident was confined to the truck, trailer and contents, which were estimated to have a total value of $55,000. The spectacular nature of the accident, the odd circumstances of the occurrence and the potential for a much larger loss served as reminders that danger is a constant companion.
At 3:56 a.m. on March 12, 2000, Chief Smith was awakened to the tones for a reported garage fire. He went immediately to the scene and upon turning onto Dean from Main saw a bright red glow. He immediately called for mutual aid and Chester’s FAST team.
Arriving at the scene Chief Smith circled the property and found the garage fully involved as well as one quarter of the first floor and portions of the upper floor. Police notified him that the occupants were safely evacuated. The fire was proceeding very rapidly as the homeowner, Mr. Stanley, had opened all the windows to try to get rid of the smoke. The resulting source of air fanned the flames into an intense blaze.
The rapid response of the primary hose team from Engine 82, led by Ex-Chief Bill Menagh, is the only reason the fire was stopped. The flames were so hot that he suffered burns to his ears even through a Nomex hood and helmet.
Ladder 83, under ex-Chief Tom Porter, carried out vent operations to relieve the back up of super heated smoke and gases allowing the hose teams’ access throughout the structure. Brookside and Ralston provided additional manpower to provide additional hose lines and relieve the primary attack teams.
The Mendham Rescue First Aid Squad carried out successful rehabilitation activities as well as providing the personnel welcome cool drinks and electrolytes.
The Ladies Auxiliary provided a continual flow of refreshments at the fire site and a welcome breakfast upon wrap-up of the fire.
The cause of the fire appeared to be an electrical short in one of the vintage automobiles kept in the garage.
In 2000, the members that had purchased the Oren back in 1980 thought that maybe the time was right to bring the Oren back to the Firehouse to restore as it was the oldest original truck that the department would be able to get it hands on. A Motion was made June 26, 2000 by Ex-Chief Porter and seconded by Ex-Chief Snedaker to repurchase the Oren and restore it to its original condition. Many felt that this would be a nice side project that could bring together the younger and older generations of the membership that were separated by a tremendous age gap. Private funds of the department were designated in the 2001 budget to begin restoration and build a new shed to house our antique apparatus. Several local contractors donated labor, materials, and equipment, which kept the cost of the project well under budget. Several members pitched a hand with the construction of the new shed as well, saving the department thousands of dollars.
On October 29, 2000 a call was received to respond to a chimney fire at 34 East Main Street. The fire advanced to the interior walls of the second floor and was promptly extinguished with a 1-¾ inch line. This fire resulted like many chimney fires before it from lack of annual chimney inspection and regular cleaning. Residents who use their fireplaces even sparingly are urged to have them inspected regularly.
On December 26, 2000, members were called upon to respond to a fire under the first floor of a residence on Kerby Lane that originated from embers falling between the hearth and the flooring. The fire progressed under the floor and was extinguished when enough flooring was removed to reach the seat of the fire. Fireplace owners are urged to examine around the fireplace for gaps and loose mortar that may allow the travel of embers or flame to surrounding flammable areas.
The years 2000 and 2001 saw an unusual number of brush and mulch fires. Many were the result of careless disposal of cigarettes and other smoking materials.
The year 2001 was fortunately saw few Borough structure fires, but the Department offered mutual aid to Bernardsville, Mendham Township, Peapack, and Chester on major structure fires. On January 3, the Department was called to Chapin Road in Bernardsville to assist in extinguishing a fire in a beautifully restored home. The fire managed to pass through the air conditioning vents and through the balloon construction and was unable to be controlled. The cause of this fire was careless disposal of fireplace ashes. Please remember that fireplace embers have been known to remain hot for over three days. All fireplace ashes should be removed in a fireproof container and kept well away from the home.
On March 7, the Department was called to Cedar Lane in the Township. This large home was fully involved at the time any units arrived and was impossible to save. Valiant efforts were made that led to minor injuries and burns to several fire fighters.
The Department’s aerial ladder was called on May 15 to Chesterfield Road in Chester to support operations. The ladder was useful in helping stop this fire, as was the use of air dropped water by the Forestry Service.
On July 17, workers installing cable lines severed a 2-inch gas line at 42 Gunter Street in the Borough. All surrounding homes were evacuated while attempts were made to have PSE&G shut off the main in the street. In a show of complete disregard for the safety of the community, PSE&G took over 2 hours to decide that they should shut off the gas.