Investigators: Janitor’s Cigarette Caused Edison School Fire

March 24, 2014 | Education, Law & Public Safety
According to investigators, the fire that destroyed Monroe Elementary was caused by a cigarette left behind.

By Christie Duffy

Investigators say a cigarette tossed into a trash can is to blame for the fire that burned down Monroe Elementary.

A 48-year-old janitor named Jerome Higgins has been issued a disorderly persons offense, for smoking inside the school.

Investigators say the fire started in the janitors office before spreading to the rest of the building. The school had no sprinkler system.

“I could not believe what I was hearing. I thought this must be a mistake. This is the school my kids have been coming to for four years,” said parent Anne Wairimu.

Wairimu has a third-grader and twins in kindergarten here. They played on the grass near their school’s blackened shell today.

“I felt sad, because we had a lot of memories there,” said student Ezekiel Wairimu.

“The only thing is lucky they were out of school,” mother Anne said.

The fire started around 7:45 Saturday night. No one was seriously hurt. But it took dozens of fire crews from Edison and nearby towns to get it under control.

Built in the early 1960s, Monroe Elementary was not required to have sprinklers.

“If it was permitted before 1991, the school would not have to have fire sprinklers in it,” explained New Jersey Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board Executive Director David Kurasz.

New Jersey has led the nation before in passing fire prevention laws. But historically, it’s taken a tragedy to move legislation.

“We go back to the Great Adventure fire, in the early 80s, the haunted house fire. We lost some kids in that fire and every single type of dark attraction like that since now has fire sprinklers. The Seton Hall fire at the dormitory where three students died. Every single dormitory. We were the first in the nation to require that as well. So we’re hoping that these fires, we can wake up and say, ‘What are we doing?’ and start installing fire sprinkler systems,” Kurasz said.

The most recent data from the state shows there were 365 fires at New Jersey schools in 2012. Almost a third of them were at elementary schools.

More than a third of schools that burned did not have sprinkler systems.

Edison will be taking a harder look at retrofitting their schools.

“Yes, we’ll certainly look into that, into sprinklers for all of the schools and make sure that if there are any that had been built previously, if they don’t have sprinklers, we can arrange to do that,” said Frank Heelan, Board of Education member for Edison public schools.

“Most of the time they don’t do it because of the cost. But again you just look at the three most recent fires that we’ve had now with the Point Pleasant fire, the Seaside Boardwalk fire and this fire. The cost to clean up after this or the relocation of all the costs associated, far outweighs the cost of installing a fire sprinkler system,” Kurasz said.

The school board president estimates about $30 million to rebuild, although they believe they’re fully insured. It will be another three years or so before students can walk the halls here again at Monroe Elementary.