Investigation Continues Into “Gas Fed” Fire That Took 61-Year-Old Man’s Life

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A 61-year-old resident of New Brunswick died in a fire on the same block of Delavan Street that saw a bad blaze destroy three homes during the summer of 2018.

The March 13 fire badly damaged at least two homes and killed Thomas Sims, a 61-year-old resident of 263 Delavan Street, who was remembered fondly on the tragic occasion.

One relative called him “a great man” in a comment in response to the news on the New Brunswick Today Facebook page.

“Love you so much Uncle. You’re with Aunt Bert now, watch over us forever,” wrote another relative, referencing the man’s widow, Bertha Sims, who passed in 2019.

So far New Brunswick Fire Department (NBFD) officials have only said the cause of the fire is “Under investigation/Undetermined,” but a police press release said that they believe the fire “appears accidental.”

“Firefighters reported intense flames as they extinguished the fire resulting in the evacuation of an adjacent property,” reads the release.

Authorities believe Sims passed away in the fire and “was found deceased by firefighters in the basement” of 263 Delavan Street, according to the statement from the New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD).

NBFD personnel were summoned to the scene at approximately 6:08pm, and by 6:30pm, “Ladder 1” was rising into the sky to spray water on the home and a neighboring house at 261 Delavan Street referred to as an “exposure.”

In addition, NBFD officials were joined by firefighters from East Brunswick, East Franklin, Edison, Milltown, North Brunswick and Piscataway fire departments, and retired NBFD Deputy Chief Thomas Dobkowski showed up in his new role with the county government’s Office of Emergency Management.

At one point, firefighters entered 261 Delavan and busted out the windows in the attic. Sims’ home, 263 Delavan, was also damaged by the fire and the water sprayed to fight it.

“Structure is unsafe due to heavy fire damage to basement and upper floors,” wrote Fire Inspector Dominick Quagliata.

Multiple sources indicated the blaze was “gas fed” but the gas utility company for the area declined to speak about the cause of the fire.

“We don’t have specifics…  Our folks responded to it at the request of New Brunswick Fire Department to turn off the gas,” said Tony Garrity, a spokesperson for Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G). “I would defer to the incident commander which is the New Brunswick Fire Department.”

The City Council also kept their comments brief at the March 17 meeting.

“I just wanted to start by offering prayers to Mr. Thomas Sims and his family. Mr. Sims lost his life in a fire Saturday evening,” said City Council President Suzanne Sicora-Ludwig. “I understand this is an active investigation so no further comment will be made on this matter.”

One week after the fatal incident, city officials still have not answered questions about the impact of the fire, including how many residents were displaced, and what, if anything, the city has done to aid them.

Three years earlier, in July 2018, a fire damaged three homes across the street, but no one was injured or killed. The three-alarm fire, which started in 258 Delavan, spread through the roof to the neighboring homes on both sides.

Residents and other onlookers watched from the porches and steps of the re-built homes as firefighters fought the recent blaze.

Despite the serious nature of the fatal incident, it took days for police and fire officials to provide any information in response to our requests.

NBPD Deputy Director JT Miller

The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO) told us to reach out to NBPD, whose public information officer is Deputy Director JT Miller. Miller initially re-directed us to the city’s Fire Director, Robert Rawls, for information about the incident.

But we had already asked Rawls for information the night of the incident and had not received a response.

Miller finally released the NBPD’s brief statement to the press on March 16, nearly three full days after the incident. Though he listed himself as the person to contact “for further information,” he did not answer follow-up questions.

“A press release was not issued until Tuesday because fatal fires require approval from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office for the release of information to the public; in addition to the ensuring the proper next of kin notifications are complete,” wrote Miller.

“I always respond to you and provide the information I am able to provide at the time.  I am sorry if it is not in the time frame you desire, however I will continue to do my job in the best and most efficient means to serve the City of New Brunswick and all of its residents,” Miller continued before us referring us back to the Fire Department.

Miller’s statement indicates that the incident “appears… accidental.”

“The cause of the fire was investigated by the New Brunswick Police and Fire Departments along with investigators from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s and Fire Marshall’s Office,” reads the release. “At this time, the cause of the fire appears to be accidental and no foul play is suspected.”

But then the following day, Inspector Quagaliata told this reporter that the cause was still “Under investigation/Undetermined.”

“It’s been crazy here,” Quagliata wrote before sending along limited information about the fire. NBFD and NBPD also responded to a vehicle fire on Paul Robeson Boulevard while the Delavan Street scene was still active.

Anyone with information about the Delavan Street fire is asked to contact NBFD at (732) 745-5254 or NBPD at (732) 745-5217.

Editor at New Brunswick Today | 732-993-9697 | editor@newbrunswicktoday.com

Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.