A thanksgiving at fire-scarred plant in West Berlin

For the second time in 16 days, fire trucks, ambulances, and police vehicles descended Friday on the ResinTech building on Cooper Road in West Berlin.

But this time the flames were licking at hamburgers, and the blue-gray smoke wafting under a big white tent smelled of hot dogs and barbecued chicken.

It was ResinTech's way of saying thanks to the emergency squads and employees who responded May 8 to an astonishingly fast-moving fire that consumed the manufacturing plant of its subsidiary, Aries Filterworks.

Everyone was evacuated safely, and the blaze generated no environmental hazard, according to fire officials.

"We're just so filled with gratitude for what everybody did," said Jeffrey Gottlieb, co-owner with his brother Larry of the business their parents started here 27 years ago.

Just eight days after fire destroyed Building No. 2, Gottlieb said, pointing to a white cinderblock building with blackened windows in the parking lot next door, "we filled our first orders."

The brothers decided, he said, to host a catered "Taste of West Berlin" party "to tell them how much we appreciated it."

Larry Gottlieb, who runs the Aries operation, said that immediately after the blaze that many of his 20 employees had worked "around the clock, and I mean 24 hours without sleep," to set up equipment in the company's adjacent plant in order to create a new production line.

"It was unbelievable. It was unlike anything we could have expected."

He said the firm, which also has a manufacturing plant in Los Angeles that has taken up some of the workload, was already operating at about 75 percent capacity.

In brief remarks to employees, emergency responders and vendors who sat around tables under the tent, both men choked up as they expressed their appreciation.

"The secret of our success," Jeffrey Gottlieb told the employees, "is that you people work as if it's your own business."

He also thanked first responders for their quick response, which "prevented the fire from causing further harm."

"We'll turn tragedy into triumph," Larry Gottlieb told them, and noted that the company is building a new production facility nearby that will open next year.

The luncheon, which drew about 25 firefighters, police, and EMTs, was unusual, said West Berlin's volunteer fire chief, Joe Jackson. "We don't get something like this very often."

Township Police Chief Leonard Check and Mount Laurel's former fire chief, William Dukes, were among the responders present.

Jackson said the fire, which began about 1 p.m. while employees were on lunch break, appeared to have been electrical in origin. High winds fanned it so rapidly that firefighters encountered a "wall of flames" too large to let them enter the building safely.

"It was an inferno in three minutes," Jackson said. "It was scary" and quickly turned into a three-alarm fire, with squads from Voorhees and Evesham also responding.

Patti Ruggeri, a 16-year employee who discovered the fire, said she had left the lunchroom for the lavatory when she saw "too much light" coming from the main production room.

"I thought it might be sparks from welding, but then I said no, that doesn't look right.

"I opened the door," she said, "and the fire was 10 feet high. I said 'Fire! Fire!" but fire extinguishers were of no use, she said, and everyone fled.

Ruggeri then pointed to Holly Rua-Doorman, operations manager for Aries, seated next to her.

"She was unbelievable," Ruggeri said. "Forty minutes after the fire started she was on the phone, texting and calling vendors saying 'We're going to need this, and that.' And this was while firefighters were still fighting the blaze."

Rua-Doorman gave a nothing-to-it shrug. "I knew we had to get up and running," she said, "as soon as possible."


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