The three Passaic firefighters stood beside a city fire engine, their boots in a half-frozen puddle and their heavy jackets open to the arctic January air.
It had been a long night on the Passaic River for these three — and for the rest of the city’s 106-strong fire department who spent Friday night battling an 11-alarm inferno at the Passaic River sites of Majestic Industries and Qualco Inc to strangle Street. , a pool cleaning utility.
“It’s the best job in the world!” Brendan Buck, a three-year-old firefighter, said with a grin.
The newest:Keeping Passaic fires away from chlorine averted ‘one of the country’s greatest disasters’
Gallows humor is probably the only way to deal with such a catastrophe. As of Saturday afternoon, officers downgraded the fire to four alerts. But the beast had been terrifying at its peak, consuming the 120,000-square-foot building it had sparked and drawing hundreds of North Jersey firefighters like moths into its orange glow.
The polar temperatures made an already dangerous situation even more difficult.
By Saturday morning, mercury had dropped to 10 degrees and gusts of wind were helping to turn firefighters’ greatest friend – water – into a merciless enemy.
The story continues under the gallery
Everything frozen. The water froze in the pipes. The hydrants are frozen. The engines froze in place, their outstretched ladders paralyzed by the cold.
Firefighters brought flares to the hydrants to get the water moving again, city fire chief Patrick Trentacost said.
Sometimes it worked.
And everyone had to be careful not to become the next victim of slipping on the icy ground.
“They’re basically trying to make an impossible job possible,” said Lt. Jonathan Pearson, a 13-year veteran. “But we took the oath for that.”
More coverage:Firefighters battle chemical fire in Passaic in freezing temperatures
Meanwhile the fire burned. It set fire to his home and threatened his neighbor, a building that contains up to 3million pounds of potentially dangerous chemicals every day.
It shot plumes of black smoke high into the sky and catapulted embers toward Wallington. Firefighters rained water over the Passaic to keep them at bay.
And the work continued, Pearson said. Frozen fire hydrant? Switch to the next. Connect more lines, more hoses. Just do it.
Robert Bonner, a freshman firefighter, said they stuck to the basics — work together, follow orders, listen to the veterans and watch what you’re doing.
“You must want to be here,” he said.
Pearson said many of these ancient structures along the Passaic River are often at risk, especially on blustery winter days.
previous:Chemical fire in Passaic injures firefighter, burns into morning hours Saturday
“It’s nice and crisp, there’s no moisture in the air, something catches fire, you get a little bit of wind and it takes off,” Pearson said. “Especially old mills like this, which are saturated with fluids and fat… by the time you get there, you’re already behind the backball. These are large wooden beams, so it’s going to take a lot more heat. But once it starts, there’s no stopping it.”
Buck said the call was first reported as a car fire on Route 21. First responders quickly found that was not the case.
Now firefighters will focus on putting out the flames, roots and stems. But they can’t do that until they start demolition — the building collapsed in on itself and pockets of flame are still hidden deep in the basement, officials said.
“It’s going to be a process,” Pearson said. “But we’ve been here before.”
Steve Janoski covers law enforcement for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news about those protecting your local community, subscribe or activate your digital account today.