UPDATE: on Feb. 3 arrested 24-year-old Martin Pasternak and charged him with possession of under 50 grams of marijuana after firefighters discovered the drug while fighting a fire at 64 Ridgedale Ave. Pasternak was charged and released pending his court appearance in Madison Municipal Court.
The had responded to a report of a basement fire Feb. 3 at about 12:50 a.m. Firefighters arrived to find a fire on the front porch of the residence and the house filled with smoke, Chief Lou DeRosa said.
The fire was quickly brought under control after firefighters cut open the porch floor and extinguished the flames, DeRosa said. The house was then ventilated of the smoke. The cause of fire was found to be a carelessly discarded cigarette butt, DeRosa said. He said occupants of the house had smelled smoke and called 911.
"The fire was minutes away from being a national news story with a tragic ending," DeRosa said. "The fire had just started to 'free burn' as firefighters arrived on the scene. The quick response and fast action by firefighters helped avert a potential disaster."
Firefighters later realized that the exterior doors to the house on the front porch were the only exit for occupants from the upper floors of the structure, DeRosa said. What was discovered in the normal course of firefighting operations was that the interior of the single-family home had been converted into a "rooming" house configuration, with 11 beds in 10 “bedrooms” on four different levels including the basement, DeRosa said.
"There were 12 occupants, male and female, in the home at the time of the fire, and all made it out of the home without injuries," DeRosa said.
The identities of those involved were not released. DeRosa said there were also no working smoke or carbon monoxide alarms anywhere in the house. New Jersey state law requires properly mounted and working smoke and CO alarms in all single- and two-family homes.
"Given the fact the front doors were the primary exit, had this fire grown and blocked off this path of escape, firefighters would have been overwhelmed with rescues and possibly body recoveries," DeRosa said.
A door that led to the basement from the first floor was dead-bolted shut and the stairs were cluttered with debris, making them virtually impassable, DeRosa said.
Firefighters also discovered in one of the rooms what appeared to be a controlled substance, DeRosa said, leading to Pasternak's arrest.
The property owner, Joseph Pirro of 53 Lathrop Ave., met with Madison fire and housing officials on Feb. 3, and was fined and ordered to bring the house back to its original, legal occupancy or additional penalties and fines would be levied. He is cooperating with authorities, DeRosa said.
County tax records show Pirro's Kings Ridge Partnership, also at 53 Lathrop Ave., bought the house in 1994.