All photos by Craig Matthews. Click image for many more pictures.
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Aritcle by Tim Zatzariny Jr. and Deborah M. Marko at thedailyjournal.com:
Three city firefighters face possible disciplinary action for mishandling the lighting of Vineland High School’s annual bonfire, according to state fire officials.
The Nov. 25 bonfire, part of a pep rally for the school’s football match-up with Millville, exploded upon ignition, sending flaming pallets sky high.
The firefighters — Michael Cifaloglio Jr., Capt. Lou Tramontana and Brian Murray — are scheduled to appear before the Peer Review Board of the state Division of Fire Safety in Trenton this morning for a hearing. The board will determine what, if any, discipline the firefighters should receive.
Vineland Fire Chief Robert Pagnini said Monday the division’s investigation found too many pallets were used in the bonfire and no accelerants should have been used to start it.
School officials vowed the pre-Thanksgiving game rallies, including the bonfire, would continue.
VHS South Principal Tom McCann, who was just several feet from the explosion, said he met with Tramontana after the incident to ensure the safety of students at future bonfires.
Cifaloglio and Murray are volunteer city firefighters; Tramontana is a full-time, paid firefighter. Cifaloglio also is the city’s fire marshal. All three are licensed by the state to conduct fire-safety inspections.
“It’s a formality,” Cifaloglio said late Monday of today’s hearing. “We made a mistake and we’re going to address the mistake. Fortunately, we don’t make a whole lot of mistakes.”
Cifaloglio was not at the bonfire because he said he was on another assignment that evening. The Division of Fire Safety has recommended he receive a written reprimand because as city fire marshal, he was generally responsible for what occurred that night. The recommended punishment for Tramontana and Murray, who were both present during the explosion, is a 30-day suspension of their license to conduct fire-safety investigations.
Tramontana was at the bonfire in his part-time role as a district warden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, which issued a permit for the event, Pagnini said.
No one was seriously hurt in the explosion, which happened seconds after the pallets were lit. One firefighter suffered minor injures when he was hit in the back of the leg with flying debris. Several people at the scene sought medical attention due to hearing problems related to the high-decibel blast heard and felt throughout town.
Pagnini said a Vineland Fire Department investigation revealed fuel vapors accumulated in the bottom of a crater dug for the bonfire in the field between Johnstone Elementary School and VHS South.
Instead of dissipating, the fumes were held close to the ground by high humidity and the density of the air, authorities said. When the pallets were lit, the vapors ignited in a ball of flames.
Fire officials had visited the bonfire site earlier in the day to issue the permit for the bonfire, Vineland High School Assistant Principal Dorothy Burke said, noting they set specific rules on how the materials are assembled.
One teacher contributed some cardboard for the bonfire, Burke said, but that wasn’t used because fire officials limited the structure to pallets only.
The fire department was responsible for lighting the bonfire, Burke said.
It was lit with a combination of gasoline and diesel fuel, which the Division of Fire Safety determined was improper, Pagnini said.
A heavy fog settled on the field at the time of bonfire lighting. But that did not prompt fire officials to cancel the event, like they’ve done in the past when there’s been unfavorable weather conditions, such as high winds.
Where weather may have contributed to the explosion, it also may have kept students out of harm’s way.
Instead of marching across the muddy field, which would have put students in the direct line of flying debris, Burke directed the band, football team and cheerleaders toward the asphalt path, a less direct course to the field.
“I had a hard time sleeping for a couple days after the explosion because of how loud the explosion was,” she said. “The silhouette of those pallets is something I will never forget.”