Questions linger as demolition underway after deadly Jersey City fire

Rob Nelson reports on the deaths of four family members inside a row home in New Jersey
March 7, 2014 6:53:40 PM PST
Demolition is underway in a Jersey City neighborhood Friday after a raging four-alarm fire tore through several row homes and killed four members of the same family.

Now, there are tough questions about the slow response that may have cost the victims' their lives.

Mayor Steven Fulop says firefighters were initially sent to Grand Street, nearly three miles away from Grant Avenue, where the fire gutted five homes and displaced at least 35. He said it took firefighters 7 to 8 minutes to get to the scene instead of the usual 3 to 4 minutes because the dispatcher misunderstood the 911 caller.

Officials Friday said they were considering changing the name Grant Avenue to something else so that there will be no confusion in the future.

"The 911 dispatchers are obviously trained to deal with high-pressure situations," Fulop said. "But in the mix-up, the caller didn't distinguish...You're dealing with people in the heat of the moment, and it's hard to get them to answer questions. That issue was part of it."

The flames broke out just before 1 a.m. in a building that also housed a small private church and quickly engulfed four neighboring homes.

CLICK HERE to see images from the scene.

Killed were an elderly couple, Bishop William Pickett and his wife Eula Mae Pickett, and their two adult children. William Pickett was the pastor of that small church.

"He was just a likable, lovable guy," neighbor Carolyn Oliver-Fair said. "This is absolutely devastating. It's a tragic loss for the community."

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

As stunned neighbors looked on, firefighters used a ladder truck to peer into the second floor of the charred structure.

A man who lives across the street said he had returned home at about 1 a.m. after celebrating his 40th birthday when he looked out his window to make sure he'd turned out all the lights in his car.

"I saw the flames coming out of the first floor entrance," Charles Davis said. "At some point the wind was blowing the fire across the street and into the other houses, and they had to evacuate everybody."

Video shot by Davis appeared to show a man running up to the house and trying to enter as the fire raged, only to be grabbed by police. Davis said he heard the man shouting, "My grandmother is in there!"

Fulop said the fire broke out during a particularly difficult week for the Jersey City Fire Department. A funeral is scheduled for Friday for Fire Captain Gregory Barnas, a 29-year veteran of the department who also volunteered with the Wallington Fire Department. Barnas was killed last week after falling from the roof of a burning restaurant in Wallington.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)