Just over five weeks ago on January 20, a fire started by embers from an outdoor chiminea fireplace completely destroyed the home of Sharyn Alice Murray at 288 Clamer Road and damaged properties of two neighbors because nearby hydrants failed to supply enough water to put it out.
“I feel the township is also a victim of the fire,” Murray said in a recent interview. “It’s TWW’s responsibility to resolve the issue quickly so that no lives are lost.”
No lives have yet been lost. However, concerned for the safety of Ewing residents, Mayor Bert Steinmann has requested maintenance reports on fire The safety of Ewing residents was forefront in a meeting between Ewing Township and Trenton Water Works on February 20, held at Ewing’ municipal complex.
The problems that occurred on January 20 have been fixed, and TWW is putting together a time table for extensive rehabilitation of the Wynnewood section of Ewing, Steinmann said. “I told TWW to do emergency appropriations,” Steinmann said. In addition to the Wynnewood section, TWW is working on a five-year plan for the entire township. The estimated cost is $23 million.
The February meeting is one of many actions the township is taking to fix the problem of inadequate water volume and flow to fire hydrants in Ewing which are owned by TWW. Using the authority of the Open Public Records Act, Ewing Township has asked TWW for records from 2010 through 2012, and a capital plan for making needed repairs and revamping the water system. Ewing pays TWW just under $1 million per year to maintain the hydrants and insure that they are working properly. TWW responded that it would comply with the request before the end of March, but Ewing is pushing for an earlier date. The township attorneys are handling the timeframe, Steinmann said.
On the morning of the fire on Clamer Road, fire fighters opened three hydrants in attempts to quench the flames. The hydrant just 25 feet from Murray’s home, and another about 300 feet away, failed to supply enough water. A third hydrant, about 900 feet away, failed completely, according to West Trenton Volunteer Fire Company Deputy Chief Hoarn. Working alongside of WTVFC was the Pennington Road Fire Company and the Prospect Heights Voluntary Fire Company.
Lacking enough water from the local hydrants, Horan dispatched water loaded tanker trucks from Titusville, Pennington, Hopewell, and Upper Makefield, Pennsylvania. As water was depleted from the tankers, fire fighters refilled them from higher capacity hydrants on Parkway Avenue. Although these hydrants supplied water, the flow was below what it should have been, said Prospect Heights Chief Jeff Lenarsky who was in charge of the water supply.
“It was a real shocker. It’s very disconcerting when you tap into a hydrant and you don’t get the flow you expected,” Lenarsky said.
Based on concern over the limited water supply, Lenarsky made contingency plans that would have drawn water from the lake at The College of New Jersey and from the D&R canal access on West Upper Ferry Road.
Fortunately, these plans were not needed. Although Murray’s house was destroyed and two neighbors’ properties were damaged, the fire was completely extinguished and the rest of the neighborhood was spared.
Since the Clamer Street fire, the faulty fire hydrants have been fixed according to TWW. As an added precaution, in the event of a future fire, West Trenton Volunteer Fire Company has included deployment of tanker trucks in its fire response plan.
At recent town meetings, residents spoke up about the hydrant failures. Among them was Paul Steward who also followed up with a letter to the township.
“In my fifty years on Clamer Road in Wynnewood Manor, the thought of a fire hydrant not working had never crossed my mind. It is just one of those things you expect to work whenever you need it. Since the fire, all of us in Wynnewood Manor have lost a sense of security. How can anyone sleep at night knowing the hydrant outside their home may not work?” Steward asked. “Our faith and trust in TWW is lost, and it is not something that is easily gained back.”
“Every hydrant in Ewing Township is suspect now,” Steward said, asking for a 100 percent inspection of all Ewing hydrants.
Steward also asked that local fire companies make the inspections, but Chief Lenarsky said the hydrants need to be checked and maintained by TWW because they own them. If someone from the township checks the hydrant and it breaks in the process, the township would be responsible, he said.
Steward responded, “Wouldn’t you rather a hydrant break during testing and not during a real fire?”
In a later interview, Mayor Steinmann said that from now on, a Ewing Township staff person would be present and would oversee all hydrant inspections and tests made by TWW.
Lenarsky expressed appreciation for the residents who voiced their concerns. “I applaud the residents for coming out and speaking up at the town meetings,” he said.
Murray is temporarily living at the home of friends in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and is continuing her work as a freelance graphic artist and video producer. One of her recent works is “Page to Stage,” an overview of Princeton Public Library’s staged readings program.
Murray said the hardest part of the fire was the loss of one of her beloved dogs and the photos and mementos of her late husband who passed away in April 2012. While her life after the fire has been has been challenging, Murray said the emotional and practical support of family, neighbors, and ever strangers, has helped her in the process of recovering her life.
Looking ahead, Ewing councilperson Jennifer Keyes-Maloney is communicating with neighbors about the possibility of holding a fundraising event in June.
The Arts Council of Princeton is holding a benefit for Murray on March 13 featuring live music and avant-garde puppetry. For information call (609) 924-8777.
Online contributions for Murray can be made at Go Fund Me: gofundme.com/Sharyn-Murray.