County: Use of torch set off mansion blaze

Loss of historic building at park expected to be covered by insurance

BY FRAIDY REISS Correspondent


MIGUEL JUAREZ staff The Geraldine Thompson mansion at Thompson Park, Lincroft, stands in ruins following a Feb. 6 fire.MIGUEL JUAREZ staff The Geraldine Thompson mansion at Thompson Park, Lincroft, stands in ruins following a Feb. 6 fire. MIDDLETOWN — Subcontractors using a torch to install gutter downspouts are believed to have caused the Feb. 6 fire that destroyed Thompson Park’s historic mansion, according to county officials.

“We were unable to eliminate the torch as the cause of the fire,” Monmouth County Fire Marshal Timothy Smith said at a press conference Feb. 14, when he announced the findings of an investigation conducted by his office, the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and the Middletown Police Department. “We believe it ignited the wall behind where they were working.”

Based on more than two dozen interviews with eyewitnesses, many of whom had taken photos of the burning building, investigators determined that Telentos Construction Corp., of Brooklyn, N.Y., – which had been hired by the county’s contractor, Cypreco Industries, of Neptune – was using a grinder and an acetylene torch on Feb. 6 to install metal gutter downspouts outside the southwest corner of the mansion, Smith said.

The heat generated by the torch ignited the wooden structure behind the downspouts and set off the fire, he said.

The blaze spread rapidly, due to wind gusts of 35 to 40 mph and due to the “balloon” frame of the 110-year-old structure, which left hollow spaces inside the walls and allowed flames to travel quickly, Smith added.

Cypreco’s contract with the county, a $69,000 package to replace the eastern and western porch roofs, specifically prohibited the use of an open-flame torch for soldering, said Laura Kirkpatrick, spokeswoman for the Monmouth County Park System.

A full report on the cause of the blaze was expected by the end of this week, Freeholder Director William C. Barham said, “but we do believe we have pinpointed the cause by which the fire started.”

The county was insured for the replacement value of the facility, less a $25,000 deductible, Barham said. He said officials did not yet know what that replacement value was, or if they would sue the contractor for damages. He did say, though, that the county probably would try to rebuild the mansion.

“Down the road I would certainly like to see something appear there of a similar nature,” he said.

County insurance agent George Dittmar, of the Dittmar Insurance Agency, Colts Neck, said it will take several weeks to determine the replacement value of the mansion.

Tasos Papanikolas, president of Cypreco Industries, denied that his subcontractor was responsible for the fire. Two Telentos employees were working on the outside of the mansion when the fire began, but they were not using torches, he said.

Additionally, the fire marshal had said a Telentos employee used his own fire extinguisher to try to put out the fire; however, Papanikolas said the worker who tried to extinguish the flames was Cypreco Industries employee Bob Reader, who happened to be on the site to meet a different subcontractor when the fire began.

Reader could not be reached for comment.

Telentos employees did not return calls for comment.

A structural engineer from Schoor DePalma, Manalapan, inspected the remains of the mansion Feb. 10 to determine if any part of the building is salvageable, company spokesman Skip Cimino said. As of press time Monday, Cimino said he could not yet reveal the engineer’s findings.

The mansion’s four original 60-feet tall chimneys and one of its two belvederes (open-roofed gallery) are “visually intact,” said Kirkpatrick, the parks’ spokeswoman. “We don’t know the structural condition” of those parts, she said, “but we’re hopeful we can retain [them].”

The county park system was completing a $3.7 million renovation of the park’s mansion, which housed a visitor center and park system offices, when the fire broke out on the morning of Feb. 6. More than 120 firefighters from 17 fire companies responded to the fire. No one was injured in the blaze, but the 17,000-square-foot visitor center was destroyed.

“We lost a grand old lady with this building,” Freeholder Lillian G. Burry said, adding that the loss was especially painful because it came when the “magnificent restoration” was almost complete.

In an apparent response to those who have criticized the county for installing a fire-suppression system only in the basement of the mansion, Burry compared the night of the fire to a “funeral process” attended by “sorrowful” county employees.

“I really don’t think it’s time to point fingers of blame,” Burry concluded. “I think it’s time to come together to support the park system.”