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Conshy fire victims seek justice

A year later, residents recount losses

It was an inferno that somehow miraculously spared lives and limbs.

But the crushing costs of the blaze that obliterated 189 apartments in Conshohocken's Riverwalk at Millennium last year came in other ways.

Roberta and Dr. Morton Melman lost the heirlooms they had packed to pass on to their eight grandchildren. Michael and Jennifer Clemente - three weeks before their wedding - lost his tuxedo, her veil and most of their bridal-shower gifts.

Dr. Irwin Becker lost everything except the clothes on his back.

On the one-year anniversary of the fire that left 250 homeless, several victims and their attorneys held a news conference yesterday near the Riverwalk complex to recount their losses.

Armed with photos of the inferno's first flames, they exhorted the construction companies blamed for sparking the fire to take responsibility and compensate victims for their losses.

The photos appear to confirm Montgomery County investigators' findings that construction workers' torches, used to remove metal balconies from a wooden structure, ignited the inferno.

"I just want somebody to say: 'It was our fault, this won't happen again, we're going to make changes to make sure it doesn't happen again,' " said Becker, 73, a father of four and grandfather of eight who now lives in King of Prussia.

"I lost everything - things I can't replace," he added, weeping. "We had pictures from their birthdays and all the family events, never to be replaced. I lost my wedding band, which my wife had engraved. I love opera and Broadway, and I lost hundreds of CDs I can't replace or listen to.

"We just feel this emptiness and we can't replace or fill it," Becker added. "A day goes by and you go to get something, you remember, 'Oh, I don't have that anymore.' "

Attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi represents Becker, the Clementes, the Melmans and dozens of other former Riverwalk residents in a class-action lawsuit filed in Montgomery County against Cavan Construction and Merion Construction.

Yesterday, he said a state judge has stayed discovery in the case and set a Sept. 30 deadline in hopes of the sides reaching a settlement.

But Mongeluzzi said the construction companies have made no settlement offers, nor apologies.

"Despite the governmental agencies pointing the finger of blame and the photos showing it was their fault the fire started, they still have not come forward with an explanation," Mongeluzzi said. "But there is no defense."

Mongeluzzi showed photos, taken from a neighboring property minutes after flames first began devouring the unfinished construction, that allegedly showed where the fire started - where Cavan workers had just finished using 3,000-degree acetylene torches to remove balconies built in wrong locations.

Mongeluzzi said he hoped for an imminent settlement to avoid astronomical attorneys' fees and "get the money to the people who deserve it."

Fred Jacoby, attorney for developer J. Brian O'Neill and O'Neill Property Groups, said: "All parties, plaintiffs and defendants are working to find a solution. I have every expectation of meeting the [Sept. 30] deadline."

Attorney Don Grimes, who represents Cavan, couldn't be reached.

Mongeluzzi estimated that claims could top $50 million, including $5.5 million already paid to insured tenants and up to $7.5 million in uninsured claims.