Sixteen dead in Jersey fires

May 1, 1982

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- Two suspicious fires that trapped screaming residents who were forced to drop babies from windows killed 16 people, seven from one family, and injured 18 others within hours of each other, authorities said.

Twelve people died in a Hoboken hotel fire Friday morning that sent residents flocking to windows screaming for help. Ten of the victims were trapped by flames and thick smoke. Two women died when they leaped from upper floors.

A house fire in Jersey City erupted Friday night in a two-story frame house and was under control 'within minutes,' said Fire Lt. David Cutburth, but not before four children were killed.

'The cause of death is undetermined, but in all probability they all died from smoke inhalation,' said Jersey City Medical Center spokesman John Whitely.

The victims were identified as Miriam Ortiz, 6 months; her 12-year-old sister, Diana Sanchez; Alfred Matos, 7; and his brother, Julinn Diaz, 4.

The Jersey City fire, which authorities said started on the second floor, was considered suspicious because it spread so rapidly.

'It was possibly arson because of the damage it did in only seven minutes,' Cutburth said.

Seven of the 12 killed in the Hoboken fire were from one family.

Firefighters arriving at the blaze found the stairwell and second-floor hallway engulfed in flames.

As residents jammed the rear fire escape, others blocked by flames tossed their children out windows into the arms of police and neighbors and then jumped for their lives, said Hoboken Fire Chief James Houn.

Hudson County Prosecutor Harold Ruvoldt said arson appeared likely and authorities would conduct an arson investigation.

Ruvoldt said fires set for profit and revenge were a 'serious problem' in Hoboken, where arson-related fires have claimed over 40 lives in the past 2 years.

Most of the 18 injured residents, firefighters and police were taken to St. Mary Hospital, where they were treated and released. Three who were critically burned were transferred to other facilities. Four others, including two firefighters, were admitted.

Manuel Serrano, and his wife, Janet, who climbed down a fire escape clutching their 3-month-old baby, recalled the screams of Mrs. Serrano's relatives trapped in a room next to their third-floor apartment.

'They were screaming 'Help me, Help me,'' she said. Her mother, brother, step-father and nephew were killed.

Although authorities would not comment, witnesses said they feared an incident at the ground-floor tavern run by hotel owner Barbara Pinter might be related to the fire.

Hotel manager Patricia Franklin, who was tending bar at The Steak House, said a man threw a bottle at her and slashed her arm with a knife as she was trying to close up at 1:40 a.m.

'I doubt if it's related to the fire but if he did it, he should be tortured,' Ms. Franklin said.

Mrs. Pinter said there was also 'trouble on the top floor' that morning. She said there was a 'fight' between a woman, who had been asked to leave the hotel by Saturday, and one of her neighbors.

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