The cause of the fire that reduced two apartment buildings at to smoldering ruins still hasn't pinpointed.
Part of the problem, said investigators, is that they still can't find and interview many of the residents living in the 52 apartments lost in the fire.
Official estimates initially were that about 100 people were made homeless by the fire. Since then, though, those estimates have soared to . Two of the apartments in the village, located in the Avenel section of Woodbridge, were vacant.
"A lot of them just took off," said Avenel Fire Official Cory Spillar of the hundreds of people who had lived in the affected apartments.
Many of the residents in Woodbridge Village were immigrants of Indian extraction, who had lost all their belongings in the blaze, including passports, visas, and other documentation.
Apartments made for four people may have held 8 people, or more, Spillar said.
"You'd go into the apartment and see a mattress and box spring right inside the door. The bedrooms would have two or more mattresses," Spillar said. "There were many more than four people living in one apartment."
Anastasia R. Mann of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers wasn't surprised.
"New Jersey is in the top five states nationally in undocumented immigrants," said Mann, who heads Eagleton's Program on Immigration and Democracy.
"People don't want to be found. They aren't willing to take the risk if they don't have the proper authority to be in this country," she said.
Overcrowding of apartments is common in states like New Jersey, which have very high housing costs, Mann said.
It's a phenomenon called "stacking": cramming as many people as possible into an apartment, particularly in areas with high rental costs.
"Housing costs in New Jersey are so out of control. Property taxes are so high, and landlords pass that on in rents. People can't afford to pay for an apartment when they live on extremely low wages, so they cram into one apartment," Mann said.
There are regulations governing how many people can live in an apartment, but Mann said that landlords, who know they are renting to undocumented workers, "frequently turn a blind eye to it. That is so they can charge exorbitant rates."
According to the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which has oversight on apartment inspections under the Bureau of Housing Inspection (BHI), there has to be a minimum usable floor area of 150 sq. ft. for the first occupant of an apartment and 100 sq. ft. of floor area for each additional occupant.
But apartments with stacked occupants is rarely found, said DCA spokesman Tammori C. Petty. "Overcrowding is rarely cited. It [is[ very hard to prove since at the time we do our inspections these individuals may not be home during the inspections," Petty said.
BHI inspections are conducted every five years, Spillar said.
Meanwhile, Spillar said that the source of the fire may have begun in a courtyard between two of the buildings. It doesn't appear to have been from a grill, but he's still waiting to interview more of the former occupants of Woodbridge Village dispersed by the fire.
"It's still under investigation," he said.