N.J. FF went ‘right through the fire’ to rescue woman, chief says

The 65-year-old apartment resident was trapped by smoke and flames, but Passaic Fire Lt. Joe Ivanicki crab-crawled up the stairs to find her


Richard Cowen
nj.com

PASSAIC, N.J. — Passaic Fire Lt. Joe Ivanicki is being called a hero after he dashed into a burning apartment building on Wednesday and grabbed a 65-year-old woman who was trapped by smoke and flames.

Tenants were clinging to the fire escape when firefighters arrived at the three-story walkup at 896 Main Avenue late Wednesday afternoon. Ivanicki, 51, entered the burning building after a resident alerted the Battalion Chief, John Hayowyk, that a woman was trapped on the third floor.

Investigators stand outside the apartment building that burned on Wednesday.
Investigators stand outside the apartment building that burned on Wednesday. (Photo/Richard Cowen/Tribune News Service)

“This guy went right through the fire to get her,” Passaic Fire Chief Patrick Trentacost said. “What he did was above and beyond. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

Reached by phone on Thursday, Ivanicki said the hallways were filled with smoke when he crab-crawled up the stairs in search of the woman on the third floor. Ivanicki said the smoke was so thick he couldn’t see an inch in front of him and his thermal imaging camera, which is supposed to help him see, had conked out.

Making matters worse, “there was trash everywhere and junk in the hallways—strollers, bicycles, crates, boxes—that I kept tripping over,” Ivanicki recalled. “Then I heard a scream. And a cough.”

Up the stairs he went, crawling on his hands and knees, up the third floor, where a woman lay on a landing. Just above her, there was a door to the roof.

The door was padlocked.

“That was the worst place you could possibly be,” Ivanicki said. “She obviously had tried to get to the roof, but the door was padlocked. She was coughing so bad, I don’t know how she was alive.”

Ivanicki first tried to force the door open, and when he couldn’t, there was only one way to go: back down the stairs, through the smoke and flames.

“I put her shirt over her face, put her on my chest, and went down the stairs backwards,” Ivanicki said. “I was dragging her as fast as I could.”

Nearly blinded by smoke, down the rickety stairs he went, carrying 180 pounds of gear and another on his back, bumping into junk along the way in a race against time. Then finally, down to the first floor, through the hallway and out the door.

Ivanicki said he was met by a couple of firefighters who put the woman who was gasping for air in the ambulance. Having saved one life, Ivanicki did what only a firefighter would do: he went back into the building to look for others.

The fire all but destroyed the building, which is at the corner of Harrison Street. Five people, including the woman that Ivanicki rescued, were sent to the hospital for smoke inhalation.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries due to slips on the ice, Trentacost said, and seven families were left homeless. But no one died.

“Property can be replaced. A human life cannot,” Trentacost said. The chief said he planned to nominate Ivanicki for the department’s highest honor, the Medal of Valor.

Ivanicki, a father of four from Wallington, says he’s been fighting fires for 30 years, as both a volunteer in his hometown and as an employee of the Passaic Fire Department. He hadn’t been told about the Medal of Valor, but wanted to share the credit for the save.

“We all did it. It was a team effort,” he said.

This was Passaic’s second major fire this month. It came less than two weeks after the huge chemical fire at the Qualco/Majestic Industries factory complex on Passaic Street. That 11-alarm inferno took more than 200 firefighters two days to extinguish, but no one died.

Wednesday’s blaze at 896 Main Avenue was much smaller, confined to a single apartment building. But 34 people lived in that building, and many of them were home when the fire broke out, officials said.

Passaic Mayor Hector C. Lora said firefighters rose to the occasion once again and saved lives. He singled out Ivanicki for his bravery.

“With little visibility and relying on his hearing her found her and rescued her out of the fire,” Lora said in a text. “This grandmother and mother is alive today because of the grace of God and the heroic act of our firefighter....Lt. Ivanicki.”

The fire is believed to have started in first-floor apartment. Trentacost said the tenant said he tried to douse the flames, first with water and then a fire extinguisher, but the flames soon engulfed the building.

The city called in the American Red Cross to help with relocation. Many of the displaced came to City Hall on Thursday seeking help and met with the Department of Human Services.

One of the displaced residents, Alex Ramirez, said he came home from work on Wednesday to the sickening site of smoke pouring from his apartment building. Ramirez, 27, lived with three people in an apartment on the first-floor and now all his possessions are gone.

“I stayed (in) a family member’s home last night, but I don’t know about today or tomorrow,” he said. “I’m looking to get help to see where I can go.”

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