By Donald Wittkowski
Janice Pantano said it started as a “tiny car fire” in the driveway Thursday night, but quickly grew into an inferno that destroyed the Sea Isle City vacation home owned by her family for more than 50 years.
As Pantano stood outside the charred remains of her house at 5605 Central Avenue on Friday afternoon, her Hyundai SUV was nothing more than a burned-out hulk.
“I don’t even know what to do,” she said, her voice shaking. “I literally have nothing left except for my cellphone.”
Pantano, 62, who lives in Blue Bell, Pa., arrived in Sea Isle on Thursday night for the start of the Memorial Day weekend. Her clothes, computer and other personal belongings were in the house during the fire.
“It is a complete loss,” she said, noting that she does have fire insurance.
The home has been in her family since 1964, beginning with her parents, Frank and Rose Pantano. A two-story addition was built behind the house 30 years ago.
“My family has owned this house for 55 years,” Pantano said while being comforted by her 25-year-old son, Francis.
After she arrived at the house around 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Pantano said she looked outside and noticed what appeared to be steam coming from her 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. Later, she saw flames shooting up from the SUV.
“I called them and told them that I had a car fire. They told me that I must get out of the house right away,” she recalled of her conversation with a 911 dispatcher.
Flames spread from the SUV in the driveway and ignited the house. Pantano expressed frustration with the response time from the fire department. She said the first fire truck didn’t arrive until 20 minutes after she reported the car fire.
Pantano said her son and a neighbor used a garden hose to try to douse the flames while she waited for the fire crews.
“I said, ‘Where is the fire truck?’ They said, ‘It’s coming,”’ she said of her conversation with emergency services.
Thursday night’s blaze was the fourth house fire in Sea Isle in the past 18 months, including one that killed an elderly woman last November. Local residents have been appearing at City Council meetings in the last two months to urge the governing body to consider hiring professional firefighters to supplement Sea Isle’s volunteer fire department.
Pantano said it is “ridiculous” for an upscale shore town like Sea Isle not to have professional firefighters. She believes firefighters could have saved her home if they had arrived sooner to prevent the blaze from spreading from her SUV.
“It was a tiny car fire,” she said.
Sea Isle’s fire department was assisted Thursday night by volunteer fire departments from Avalon, Strathmere and Ocean View. In a posting on its Facebook page, the Strathmere fire department said all of the fire crews did an “excellent job.”
A press release from the Sea Isle City Police Department said the fire was brought under control by 11:18 p.m. Thursday. No injuries were reported. Pantano’s house and neighboring homes were evacuated while firefighters battled the blaze.
An adjacent home had what the press release described as some minor damage to the exterior from the fire’s intense heat.
“At this time, this incident is not suspicious in nature and is being investigated by the Sea Isle City Police Department and the Cape May County Fire Marshal’s Office,” the release said.
The Fire Marshal’s Office could not determine the cause of Sea Isle’s three previous house fires. On Nov. 24, 2017, three beachfront homes on Pleasure Avenue were burned down. Three duplexes were destroyed in a Nov. 29, 2018, blaze that killed an 89-year-old woman living in one of the homes. Her death – and the fire – were considered an accident.
Most recently, two duplexes on 75th Street near Central Avenue were destroyed by fire on Easter morning.
Although the Fire Marshal’s Office could not determine the cause of the fire on 75th Street, fire experts hired by an insurance company concluded that it was ignited by a faulty electrical outlet in the master bedroom on the second floor of the duplex closest to Central Avenue, Deputy Fire Marshal Rocco DiSilvestro said.
“As sad as it may seem, there are a lot of our fires that are undetermined,” DiSilvestro said of fires throughout the county.
In the aftermath of the Sea Isle fires, local residents have been voicing their concerns to members of City Council. Some of them have said they want the city to consider hiring professional firefighters to provide 24-hour protection instead of continuing to rely solely on Sea Isle’s volunteer fire department.
Others have called on Council to pass stricter building codes that would require fire-retardant construction materials and stronger fire walls.
Some residents said homes are too densely packed together in Sea Isle, allowing fires to easily spread from one house to another. They wondered whether the city’s zoning laws should be changed to require more space between homes.
City Business Administrator George Savastano told residents during the most recent Council meeting that Sea Isle takes fire safety as seriously as any other municipality and has “great construction codes.”
Savastano and Council President Jack Gibson both praised Sea Isle’s volunteer fire department for the protection it gives the city. Savastano pointed out that it is common for municipalities to have volunteer fire departments.
In the meantime, Gibson wants Sea Isle to work with residents on ways to increase fire awareness and safety. He suggested that the city should use its website to educate the public with fire safety tips.
Gibson also wants the city to gain access to Sea Isle fire investigations conducted by the county Fire Marshal’s Office. He believes information gleaned from the fire reports would be a valuable tool to help prevent more fires.
Savastano told Gibson and the other Council members that Sea Isle Police Chief Tom McQuillen has been working with the Fire Marshal’s Office on the investigations.