The recent fire on Park Avenue last month was not only tragic and devastating, taking one of Asbury Park’s own; James Famularo. It also brought back a personal memory which inspired me to write this story. I will continue with the Vaccaro series in the near future, but in the meantime, I hope you get something from this story and the ones that follow in the next few months.
A Fatal Fire
The fire started on Monday, July 9th, shortly after 3 pm. I was about to leave my office for a closing and as I was getting into my car I saw several police cars leave City Hall one by one in a rapid speed of urgency, turning their sirens on as they headed north up Main Street. I could hear the fire trucks blowing their horns from the corner of Asbury Avenue and then I saw two ambulances and a fire truck from Neptune speed by all heading in the same direction. I didn’t know where or what was happening at the time, but I knew it had to be pretty bad. And then I put it out of my mind and headed down to my closing in Brick.
I heard from my clients that the fire was on Park Avenue, between 6th and 7th. That’s close to where I live, so when I got back into town around 5:30, I went to check it out. The fire had been extinguished about an hour before, but some of the fire trucks were still there and a few people lingered just beyond the yellow tape.
I walked up to where the people were and asked a man standing next to me if anyone was hurt. That’s when I learned about James Famularo. I couldn’t believe it. He asked me if I knew him and I said yes. It was very sad news. He told me he knew James very well. He also knew some of the police who were standing a few feet away on the other side of the tape. He said that James had gone into the house looking for his wife and son, not realizing that his son had run out the back door and his wife had jumped out a second-floor window when the fire blocked her exit.
I didn’t know him well, but I knew Mr. Famularo because my mom, Terri Buttitta, had worked in the City Manager’s office as a receptionist during the time when James Famularo was the Assistant City Manager, under the leadership of Terry Reidy. My heart goes out to his friends and family.
Standing there watching the firemen go in and out of the house brought back memories of my own experience of a house fire when I was a kid. My experience was nowhere near as tragic but it brought up my own memories of being touched by a catastrophe that most people hope will never happen to them.
The House on West 1st Street
Growing up we lived in a modest ranch-style house in Edison, NJ with a two car garage and full basement. The basement was finished with what was called a recreation or “rec” room that included a couple of vinyl sofas, a club chair, and a large console stereo that played vinyl LP records. The decor was typical 1960s style. There was also a kitchen in the basement, with a half wall that separated the rec room from the dining area. On the opposite side of the rec room was a pool table. My father was a handy craftsman and did all the work himself. He also built a storage room on one side behind the steps. In the corner was a workbench where he kept all his tools, that had
I think I was in the fifth grade at the time and my brother, being a couple of years older, would have been in junior high school (aka seventh grade). One afternoon we were both hanging out in the basement like we often did. I was in the rec room playing with my Barbie dolls. My brother was in the workshop with the door closed. After a while, he came out and as he was heading upstairs he mentioned that he was going to Hiwoods Park, which was about six blocks
About a half hour later my mother came running out of the house screaming for me and my brother. I could see her on the back porch from where I was standing. I ran up to the fence between our yard and the neighbors and answered her. When she saw me she was relieved for a moment and then frantically yelled out in a panic, “Have you seen your brother?” “He went to the park.” I replied, “Why what’s wrong?” Then she screamed, “The house is on FIRE!” All the kids who were playing in the street heard her and ran into the neighbor’s yard and jumped over the fence into my yard. Our neighbor would always yell at us for jumping the fence, so I ran around the block.
By the time I got to my house, the fire trucks were already there. My mom was very upset. She smelled smoke coming from the basement and when she opened the door, a huge cloud of black smoke hit her in the face. There was so much smoke she couldn’t see anything. And since she didn’t see my brother leave the house she was worried that he might still be down there. But I knew he had left and that he was okay.
I watched from the street as several firemen went in and out of my house. I was concerned about my kittens and told one of the firemen that I needed to go get them. I took in a black and white stray cat the summer before and named him Augustus, (because I found him in August). The following spring Augustus brought home a calico feline friend who was kind of fat. I took her in too and not long after she had kittens. The kittens were only a few weeks old when the fire occurred. The fireman asked me where they were. I told him they were in the garage. In a reassuring voice, he said, “They’ll be fine,” and then he told me the fire was in the basement.
We learned that the fire started in the basement workshop from a smoldering cigarette. So I guess we know what my brother had been doing in there! Word got out in the neighborhood pretty quickly. When my brother heard about the fire and how it started he didn’t come home for two days — literally. He was petrified at what my father might do when he got a hold of him. Meanwhile, my mother was a total wreck, still worried about my brother. She kept asking me, “Did you SEE him leave?”
I told her that I didn’t see him leave, but he told me he was leaving, I saw him go upstairs, and I heard the back door close. So I was pretty certain he left the house, but the fact that he didn’t come home only magnified her fears. I heard where he was staying and managed to get word to him, “Come home, mom thinks you’re dead.” When he learned how worried our mother was, he figured it was time to face the music and came home.
Ultimately, it was a smoke fire that left black soot all over our house. The basement was the worst; everything had to be thrown out. The damage upstairs was pretty bad as well and we had to move out of the house for several weeks while they did the repairs.
Refuge to AP
This happened at the end of June so when school let out my mother rented a small guest house on Third Avenue in Asbury Park. It was a cute little green and white colonial with an efficiency apartment on the first floor situated just a few houses in from the Asbury Lodge that stood on the corner of Third and Kingsley. Now that location is a trailer lot for the construction crews that are working on the Asbury Ocean Club development project between Ocean and Kingsley Avenues.
Asbury Park was still in its prime then. In the Third Avenue pavilion (where the Pinball Museum and Langosta Lounge are located) there was a huge arcade called BMS Amusements. BMS was the largest arcade on the entire boardwalk. Some of the machines in the Pinball Museum are the originals from BMS Amusements. As soon as you walked in you could hear the sound of the bells and pings going off from all the different machines. Also in that pavilion was a gift shop, a pizza stand, ‘Spikes’ sandwich shop, and Criterion Candies. On the boardwalk was the Oceanic Bubbleland amusements that had kiddie rides and on the other side were the adult rides and a miniature golf course.
We stayed nearly a month in Asbury Park that summer while our house was being repaired and it turned out to be one of our best childhood summers. I had made friends with a few girls my age who were staying in town and we’d play on the beach together all day. My brother made friends with some of the people who worked in the arcade and he’d hang out with them all night. On Sundays we would go to the Howard Johnson’s for breakfast and sometimes walk to Ocean Grove because you couldn’t drive your car there on a Sunday. As for my mother, she was in her glory; my brother was home safe and not only did the insurance cover the cost of the repairs and our vacation, she got a newly decorated house. There was a Bamberger’s outlet store on the boardwalk that sold artwork and home furnishings. I specifically remember this store having an enormous amount of reproduction paintings. The paintings covered every inch of the walls, stretching all the way up to the ceiling. An art lover, my mother spent a lot of time in that store. I always knew where to find her. She came home that summer with several pieces of art to hang in her beautiful new home!
After leaving the scene of the fire on Park Avenue, I went to visit my mother who lives in Asbury Tower. She has an end unit on the 18th floor that overlooks the city. I told her about the fire and about James. She was very sad to hear the news, although she knew about the fire because she could see the huge cloud of smoke coming from the building just a few blocks away.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of outcome we would have had in my family if my mother didn’t see me on the next block, if I wasn’t there to tell her that my brother had left the house. There is nothing stronger and more devoted than the love for your family.
Thank you to Mayor John Moor for his assistance on filling in some of the details of this story.
More about the Kittens…
For those of you who might be
The Asbury Park Fire Department is hiring. If you’re interested in becoming a firefighter and would like more information go to AsburyParkFire.org or click this link to view the job opening. You can apply to be a firefighter here. The deadline is August 31st.
*Edited on 8/15/18