(April 14 marks the 35th anniversary of the monstrous fire at Garden State Park race track in Cherry Hill. One of the first reporters on the scene was KYW’s Bill Roswell, who was then a reporter, photographer and news editor for the Suburban Newspaper Group.)
By Bill Roswell
CHERRY HILL, N.J. (CBS) – April 14, 1977. A sunny, cloudless Thursday, one of those warm days of spring that makes you glad to get outside and enjoy the weather.
I and the other reporters at the Suburban Newspaper Group spent most of the day out doing interviews and taking pictures for the following week’s editions. We returned late in the afternoon to the newsroom, where the windows looked out on the front entrance and grandstand of Garden State Park.
Around 4:15, we noticed a few puffs of gray smoke dotting the blue sky. We believed it was probably some fire off in the distance. But minutes later, we spotted flames leaping out of the grandstand roof.
Telephones in our office started ringing almost in unison, with each caller frantically reporting: “The race track’s on fire!!” The newspaper’s executive editor, Al Mattern, quickly flipped on the radio to KYW Newsradio and waited to hear the first broadcast reports on the blaze.
Grabbing our cameras and notepads, the handful of reporters and I started running across the parking lot toward the burning track. Watching the flames as I ran, I thought it was small fire that would be put out quickly. But the flames grew higher and brighter, as I tried to maneuver against the flood of thousands of racing fans racing to their cars. More than 10,000 spectators had been at the race track that afternoon.
In just 10 short minutes, I watched the flames spread from one end of the old wooden grandstand to the other. Thick, black smoke was now rising thousands of feet in the air. As I tried to get closer to the front gate of the track, I was pushed back by hot, glowing embers raining down from the clouds of smoke over my head.
Most of what I witnessed of the Garden State Park fire was through the lens of my Minolta camera. I noticed the flames leaping from the statue of a horse and rider atop the roof of the grandstand. The sculpture looked almost alive, running in and out of the dark, chunky smoke.
I stood almost motionless for what seemed like an eternity, looking at the statue through my camera lens, desperately hoping to get one clear photograph of that burning sculpture. Little did I know at the time how symbolic that photograph of a dying horse and rider would become.
Later that evening – sometime around 6 PM – I stood silently in the median strip of Route 70 at the Race Track Circle. Rescue crews were working feverishly but futilely to revive a Mount Ephraim fireman who had suffered a heart attack.
I said a silent prayer from that fireman, as well as for the hundreds of those in the grandstand I feared might not have escaped the inferno. Amazingly but sadly, only two deaths were blamed on the fire, which investigators said was caused by an electrical malfunction.
Eugene Mori, Sr., a Vineland car dealer, dairy farmer and banker, built the historic landmark in the early 1940s. Mori sold stock in the race track development to his friends and neighbors who believed in his dream and trusted his integrity. His $1.5 million investment became the foundation of a multi-million dollar corporation that helped what was then Delaware Township grow from rural farmland into a suburban jewel called Cherry Hill.
Financier Robert Brennan raised $178-million to build a new grandstand of glass and steel. The new Garden State Park re-opened in April 1985.
On the day of the big fire, all of the track patrons I interviewed vowed that they’d return to The Garden when it rose from the ashes. But they never came back. Garden State Park never regained its past glamour and glory. The re-built track held its final race on May 1, 2001. Only a thousand or so people were in the stands.
Today, the 600 acres of land at Haddonfield Road and Route 70 is home to two shopping centers, apartments, townhouses, condominiums and several restaurants.
If only those first few puffs of smoke on that April afternoon in 1977 could have given a signal of what the future would hold.