Residents of the Villa Belmont condominiums are back in their homes after an underground fire and power failure prompted officials to evacuate two of the buildings Friday night.
Power was restored through a temporary feed Saturday afternoon, but it could take two to three weeks until the issue is permanently repaired, Electric Director Bhadresh Patel said in an email Monday.
City officials released only scant information about the incident over the weekend and did not respond to questions from the Newark Post until late Monday afternoon, three days after the evacuation.
The incident occurred around 8:30 p.m. Friday at the property on Welsh Tract Road, said John Farrell IV, a spokesman for Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company.
Aetna was dispatched for a call of smoke coming from an electrical wire, but what seemed like a minor incident when the fire company arrived turned out to be a larger situation, Farrell said.
The fire resulted in the failure of a major underground electric cable. Two of the buildings in the condominium complex – Building 72 and Building 80 – were without power, and officials quickly determined that they needed to be evacuated.
“The city advised the residents that they were unsafe and should find other arrangements,” Newark Fire Inspector Dave Tynan said in an email, adding that he was concerned because the power outage had affected safety devices in the buildings.
“Due to the power outage, the emergency lights and exit signs and fire alarm were not working properly,” he said. “They had exceeded the life of the battery back-up within the fire alarm and emergency light units.”
Farrell added that the buildings have cavernous hallways that make navigation dangerous without lights.
“That place becomes an absolute dungeon. It’s dark,” Farrell said, adding that without air conditioning, the heat and humidity was a concern, as well.
Thirty-five firefighters from Aetna and Christiana Fire Company spent five hours assisting the evacuation of more than 70 tenants in the two affected buildings, Farrell said.
Many of the residents of Villa Belmont are elderly. Some use wheelchairs or walkers and needed to be carried down the stairs because the elevators weren’t working, Farrell said.
“There was no way they could stay in the building,” he said.
While many affected residents were able to stay with relatives or friends or checked into nearby hotels, Farrell said others were offered temporary assistance at Aetna’s fire hall at Ogletown Road.
Aetna, the city, the American Red Cross and state and county agencies partnered to operate the shelter. Tynan said several residents and their pets were housed there until Saturday afternoon.
With temporary power restored, the buildings reopened at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Patel said the city will bring in a contractor to do the permanent repairs to the electric cable.
“The cable was installed in the late 1960s, and it was direct buried,” he said. “The ground has lots of rocks, so the combination of aged cable, and rocks might have caused the cable failure. We are still looking to see if there were any other issues which could have caused this outage.”
Sandra Clark, managing agent for Villa Belmont, said 70 units at the complex lost power. There were no injuries to residents and no damage to the buildings, she said.