7 On Your Side Investigates: Were deaths in New Jersey fire preventable?

UNION CITY, New Jersey (WABC) -- A deadly fire in New Jersey that claimed the lives of five children and injured several other people in the same family was a heartbreaking tragedy, but now, there are disturbing new questions about whether it could have been prevented.

After the fire last Friday, we are finally getting key clues as to why the children were unable to get out of a third floor apartment. Only one was able to escape. Inspection documents seem to shed light on why.

When the fire started on the first floor of the three-story building in Union City, it is now clear that the six children sleeping in the third floor apartment had very little chance.

Inspection documents we obtained show many serious housing and fire code violations from top to bottom.

Four days after the blaze, Fire Prevention inspectors found eleven serious fire code violations, including failure to maintain fire alarms, failure to provide fire rated doors, and as we first reported earlier Wednesday, failure to maintain the fire escape.

News Copter 7 video during last Friday's fire shows the fire escape on the third floor where the six children were blocked by an air conditioner, with fire racing up the inside stairs. That fire escape could have been their only way out.

"This air conditioner probably played a role in this fire in terms of preventing them from getting out of the apartment," said Glenn Corbett, professor of fire science at John Jay College.

Besides the slew of serious fire code violations, housing inspectors days after the fire found the first floor where the fire started was an illegal apartment. They hit the building owner, Jason Chen of Bergenfield, with four violations including building rooms on the first floor without a permit.

Chen must pay $60,000 in fines. It's believed the fire started in that illegal apartment. Add the fact there were no working smoke detectors and a blocked fire escape exit, and the odds of those children getting out were very slim. Only one survived.

"It happened so quick, it happened in a matter of minutes and they had been asleep," said a close family friend.

The question before the Hudson County Prosecutors Office is whether this amount of violations amount to any criminality.

We should also note here that all of these violations came in inspections after the fire.

Did Union City inspect this building any time in the months leading up to the fire and if so, what did they find then?

That's something we'll be looking into.


Jim Hoffer, Danielle Leigh and the 7 On Your Side Investigates team at Eyewitness News want to hear from you! Call our confidential tip line 1-877-TIP-NEWS (847-6397) or fill out the form BELOW.

You can also contact Jim and Danielle directly:

Jim Hoffer:
Email your questions, issues, or story ideas to 7OnYourSideJim@abc.com
Facebook: facebook.com/jimhoffer.wabc
Twitter: @NYCinvestigates

Danielle Leigh
Email your questions, issues, or story ideas to 7OnYourSideDanielle@abc.com
Facebook: DanielleLeighJournalist
Twitter: @DanielleNLeigh

If using the app, click here to send us a news tip
Copyright © 2022 WABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.