EDGEWATER, N.J. — Thanks to eyewitness video, an intense fire in a building that housed a dance studio filled with children has been viewed online hundreds of thousands of times worldwide.
More importantly, the fast work of innocent bystanders is seen on the video.
Their actions, along with the bravery of the children and their teachers, resulted in a situation that had the potential of having mass casualties being instead a scene of minor injuries.
"I was one of the last people to jump off," said Nina Twomey, 12, about the emergency that unfolded around 6:30 p.m. Monday. She is quite visible in the eyewitness cellphone video of the fire on Old River Road, holding on to a second floor balcony, while fire rages next to her and above her.
Twomey said that she and her class smelled something burning, but they assumed it was something involving cooking in Beyoglu Restaurant on the floor below. After a few minutes, the seventh-grader said light smoke began filling the dance studio.
"My teacher was like, 'We've got to get out," Twomey said.
When they opened the only exit door from the studio, "The whole balcony was covered in smoke," said Twomey.
"The flames were almost touching me," she added. "I didn't know what to do. We were all trapped at the end of the balcony, so the only way to escape was to jump off."
One by one, the dance students jumped, some onto ladders that good samaritan bystanders had hoisted up. It became very clear, very fast, that the ladders were not tall enough, so bystanders told the children to jump into their waiting arms.
Overall, said the girl who'd been one of the jumpers, it worked.
"From the fall, I've got some bruises, but I'm okay," Twomey told PIX11 News.
She and others were able to escape through the door and the balcony, but there were two other girls from her class who could not get out.
"They weren't able to make it," said Twomey. "They went back inside" the dance studio.
"They were pounding on the window," said their classmate, "They were hoping that somebody saw them, and luckily they did, and they got them out."
Two people grabbed ladders from the auto body shop adjacent to the dance studio building, climbed up on the garage, pulled the ladder up behind them, and then used the ladder to shatter the window of the room where the girls were trapped.
Those two people were Sgt. Jimmy Dalton of the Edgewater Police Department, and Tony Nehmi, who'd been at the business he owns, Edgewater Wine & Spirits, when he saw smoke and rushed over to help.
"When I saw them behind the window, my heart dropped," Nehmi told PIX11 News. "I didn't care. I just want to get them out, before anything happens."
His store is about a quarter mile away.
"We ran right away here," he said. "Everybody would do the same thing."
Edgewater Mayor Michael McPartland called Sgt. Dalton and Nehmi heroes.
Nehmi humbly turned down the title. "I did what I had to do," he said.
By contrast, Nina Twomey said that Nehmi’s and other good samaritans' swift action made a world of difference.
"I'm really grateful for the people who came over to help," said Twomey. Without them, she said, "I don't think we could've gotten out that safely."