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Mysterious fire rips through historic buildings in New Jersey

NORTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. — The fire spread quickly Tuesday morning through a labyrinth of buildings that date back to 1876.

It grew to a 5-alarm fire after igniting at around 3:30 a.m. The complex partially collapsed at the center, as more than 50 percent of the historic structures burned. Some were demolished this afternoon.

A caretaker spotted someone leaving the 15-acre property just as the flames broke out.

"I just saw some car pass by so I cannot identify what it is,” said Sisko Lassana.

Villa Maria on Somerset Street includes an infirmary, chapel and apartments. It was initially built as a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients. It was later purchased and renamed by nuns, who turned it into a nursing home. It’s been vacant since 2002.

"You can see the ground floor is all boarded up,” said Lassana. Nevertheless, he said people still manage to break in. “What can you do, kids is kids.”

This is the second fire at Villa Maria this year. Firefighters battled a smaller blaze at the site in July.

"Some vandals or trespassers that maybe accidentally set the fire, I don’t think it was at the time an intentionally set fire,” said North Plainfield Fire Chief William Eaton.

The cause of this latest fire is still under investigation. No one was hurt.

In 2007, more than 600 people signed a petition to preserve Villa Maria's historic structures and open space. The has been purchased by a private company and it was slated for redevelopment into condos for seniors.