HACKENSACK, NJ — Hackensack Riverkeeper's headquarters on Main Street in Hackensack was nearly destroyed in a fire Saturday evening.
The fire began in a retail shop next door — forced to close due to coronavirus — and broke out just past 5:30 p.m. Saturday, according to Capt. Bill Sheehan, the non-profit's director and who lives in Secaucus.
Riverkeeper's headquarters is at 231 Main Street in Hackensack; the retail store, closed for months now, is at 229 Main Street. It quickly spread to his building, and rose to three-alarm status when the flames hit a gas line. Sheehan said the Bergen County Prosecutor's office is investigating what exactly caused the fire.
"The (retail) building has had a 'For Sale' sign on it for a while now," he said. "It's definitely suspicious, but that's all I know."
"I got the call at 5:30 Saturday and when I left Secaucus and was driving up to Hackensack, I could see this tower of black smoke from miles away," said Capt. Sheehan. "It got worse as I drove into the city of Hackensack."
Sheehan said when he got there, he watched as orange flames and black smoke tore through his building's roof. It took responding firefighters hours to contain the blaze, and firefighters had to pour in from surrounding towns to provide mutual aid.
Hackensack Riverkeeper owned that building and the non-profit's staff of six worked out of it.
"I bought it through the Riverkeeper in 2002; I always wanted to make sure we owned our own place outright, so we could never be kicked out of anywhere," said Sheehan.
Yes, he is fully insured.
"We have the best insurance our meager money can buy," he said. "We invested quite a bit of money into the building through grants and so on. It was our home for the past 18 years and now it's a mess."
Sheehan said he doesn't know if the building is salvageable; he'll know more Monday after meeting with the Hackensack building inspector.
While some of the non-profit's work was stored virtually through cloud computing, "a lot of our stuff was on hard drives stored in the basement. But they may be free from water damage. We're waiting to see."
However, all the computers and electronics kept in the office were lost.
But Sheehan said wryly: "The one silver lining is my staff has been working at home since April so all their laptops were home with them."
Sheehan, who runs boat tours, started Hackensack Riverkeeper decades ago and has made it his life mission to preserve the beauty and ecology of the Hackensack River. His group is also instrumental in cleaning up the river after years of toxic pollution. They are also advocates to keep the area clean in general, such as their recent opposition to a North Bergen power plant.
Sheehan said Hackensack Riverkeeper is not going anywhere — it just may need to find a new home. Over the weekend, Gov. Murphy allowed charter boat rentals to reopen and thus Riverkeeper plans to reopen their kayak paddling rentals at Laurel Hill Park and Overpeck very soon. Plus, Capt. Bill said they will resume boat tours of the Hackensack, and will be cleaning the boats with sanitizer after every use.
"We ARE still on the job. Just this month we patrolled the entire river and Newark Bay from Hackensack to Staten Island, are investigating several incidents as a result, and we surveyed 40 nest sites, including three Bald Eagle nests. And we're planning to open our Paddling Centers very soon," the non-profit said in an email.
A GoFundMe has been started for the Riverkeeper, and Sheehan said he was stunned — and grateful — donations already came in, as early as Sunday morning: https://www.gofundme.com/f/hackensack-riverkeeper-office-fire-relief
"We have a very loyal donor base: Some people have given us $1,000 a year for 20 years," said Capt. Bill. "If the building is coming down, I have to be flexible and think on my feet and make sure I can find us a new home."