Mamaroneck Fights Three Major House Fires in 18 Hours

by Judy Silberstein; Harmon photos by Kevin Heckman

harmon fire

(November 24, 2008) Town of Mamaroneck’s Fire Department (TMFD) tackled three unrelated house fires in the space of 18 hours this weekend. This was an emergency response rate “unprecedented” for Mamaroneck Town, said Fire Chief David Commender. Damage was extensive – probably more than a million dollars at one home and hundreds of thousands at the other two – but there were no injuries to the home owners or to the many firefighters, police and ambulance crews who responded.

Fire was already shooting out of both sides of the attic at 31 Harmon Drive, by the time firefighters were called to the first scene at 9:50 pm on Friday, November 21. Though it took Chief Commender “literally a minute” to arrive from his house, “the sky was lit with orange flames” as he approached.

Harmon fire

Westchester County’s “cause and origin” team attributed the fire to electrical causes, most probably a space heater warming an attic bedroom on a night when temperatures dropped into the low 20s. The home owner, Albert Jenicek, and another resident were on the first floor when the fire began, but didn’t detect a problem until one of them attempted to go upstairs and encountered thick smoke. The two men fled next door, where the neighbors called for help.

“It was a crazy cold night,” said Julie Stone Doherty, the neighbor. “It was surreal – like a scene out of the movies.” As firefighters sprayed water to quench the fire and prevent it from spreading, Mr. Jenicek’s house along with adjoining homes, shrubs and the sidewalks became covered in ice. In addition to TMFD, there were crews from the fire departments of West Harrison, Mamaroneck Village and Larchmont Village and from Larchmont’s ambulance corps.

“We attempted an aggressive interior attack,“ said Chief Commender, “ but the structural integrity of the building was in doubt, so we pulled out and attacked from outside” before returning later to fight again from within. The chief estimated damage to be at least $300,000-$400,000.

Harmon fire

Emergency responders had to restrain the homeowner from re-entering the building to search for pets. The family dog was found uninjured, and by the next day, Mr. Jenicek’s adult sons, Albert and Joshua, said the cat had been sighted and was presumed to be hiding in the empty house.

TMFD left the Harmon fire at 1:30 am. Ten hours later, at 11:34 am, they were called to 6 Point Road on Premium Point overlooking the Long Island Sound, where a housekeeper and home health aide advised that the elderly homeowner, Page Morton Black, was still inside the burning structure, temporarily safe on a second floor porch. It took a team of Town police along with firefighters from TMFD and LFD to remove the frail nonagenarian from the porch, down a ladder and into an awaiting ambulance.

The cause and origin team believe the fire began with a faulty standing lamp in the living room, and heavy smoke and flames spread from there, up the staircase and through to the roof, restricting access to the upper floor.

TMFD knocked down the initial fire in about 15 minutes, aided by firefighters from the villages of Larchmont and Mamaroneck, West Harrison and City of New Rochelle, reported Chief Commender. But freezing winds whipping off the Sound created two additional flare ups that took another thirty minutes to quell. Damage to the 120 by 40 foot, two-story home, “certainly exceeds $1 million,” said the chief.

After a brief hospital stay, the homeowner is back, residing for now in the caretaker’s cottage. Ms. Black’s late husband, William Black, owned the Chock Full o’Nuts Corporation, and she was the original voice of the still famous coffee jingle.

The firefighters could have used a cup of Chock Full o’Nuts. By the time they got back to the Mamaroneck town firehouse at around 1:30 pm, they had just enough time to wash up and get the rigs back in order when they were called at 4:30 pm to a basement fire at 61 Myrtle Boulevard, the home of Fred and Rosemary Bender and their children.

“Flames were showing out the left side basement window when we arrived,” said Chief Commender. Westchester’s cause and origin team believes the fire originated with a gas clothes dryer in the lower level.

“This was a difficult fire – all basement fires are hard, because as you put water out, the fire and smoke has to vent back past you,” the chief explained. Firefighters vented the first and second floors and the roof, knocking down most of the fire in the first 15 minutes. Chief Commender estimated resulting damage to be approaching $100,000.

Again there were no injuries; only Mr. Bender was at home when the fire broke out, and the family’s cat and two dogs were found and rescued. VAC responders used equipment for reviving infants to pump oxygen into the cat’s mouth. By Sunday afternoon, a still distraught Ms. Bender reported the pets were all fine.

Mamaroneck Town Supervisor Valerie O’Keeffe was at the first fire and remarked, “It made me very proud and grateful to our fire department and our neighboring firefighters who came out on such a cold night.“ After attending the third fire, she noted how “unbelievably exhausting” it was for the firefighters and other first responders, particularly given the freezing temperatures. “It was remarkable that they had the energy,“ she said.

Chief Commender was also, “very proud of how our firefighter focused on each and every call and dealt with the unique problems presented by each fire.” He added, “They did their job, got the rigs back in service and were ready for the next call, which in this case, came very quickly.“