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Inappropriately Discarded Cigarette To Blame For Fire At James Monroe Elementary School

EDISON TOWNSHIP, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Parents packed a community meeting Monday night, after learning a cigarette was to blame, and a custodian had been charged, in the fire that destroyed the James Monroe Elementary School in Edison, N.J.

Head custodian Jerome C. Higgins, 48, of East Brunswick, was charged with a petty disorderly persons offense for smoking inside the school, the Middlesex County Prosecutor's office said.

The charge was filed after detectives determined that Higgins smoked a cigarette inside the building and tossed an unfinished portion of the cigarette into a trash can.

Some of the school's security video footage survived the fire, which is part of the evidence investigators are using as they charged the custodian.

Inappropriately Discarded Cigarette To Blame For Fire At James Monroe Elementary School

The contents of the trash can, located in a custodian's office, caught fire and the blaze spread through the building at approximately 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, according to the prosecutor's office.

As CBS 2's Dave Carlin reported, the auditorium of Edison High School was packed Tuesday night with parents looking for answers about the fire and what is next for the students.

At the meeting, district Supt. Richard O'Malley had more information that parents expected, including his own reaction to the allegations against Higgins.

"I think it was very careless mistake by someone I trusted," he said.

Also at the meeting, acting Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey announced the suspected cause of the fire and charges.

Carey told 1010 WINS the criminal investigation into the fire is over, and the charges are what the law provides under the circumstances since there was no intent to burn down the school.

Witnesses said they saw Higgins in the crowd watching as the beloved school became a burned out shell.

"The thing that I thought was a little unusual was he was pretty calm," said Edison resident Karen Halo. "Like if I was the last person in the building and the building was in a fire, I don't know if I would be quite so calm and collected."

The school had smoke and fire alarms, but no sprinklers.

It is against state law to smoke inside a school building.

"I'm sure it was a horrible accident but you have to think of things," Edison resident Millie Mark told Carlin. "Of all people, he knows the rules."

As parents and children got closer to the school on Monday, they did not hold back their tears.

"It's worse here than on TV or anything," one woman said.

The school, which has roughly 500 kindergarten through fifth-grade students, was celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

"It's awful. I don't understand why it happened," Debi Dal Pezzo, who attended the school as a child, told CBS 2's Andrea Grymes. "It's awful."

"They just can't believe it, I can just see it in their eyes when they come here," Board of Education member Frank Heelan told WCBS 880's Sean Adams.

Meanwhile, a woman who answered the door at Higgins' home said he had no comment.

And the students will have no school until Wednesday, when they report to hastily arranged classrooms at Middlesex County College.

Custodian Jerome C. Higgins
Custodian Jerome C. Higgins (credit: CBS 2)

"We're looking to get a private school that closed down recently that would have 40 classrooms and a large gym and cafeteria area," Heelan said.

One teacher said the students would be at a great disadvantage.

"They're not going to have anything," said teacher Angela Flaherty. "No pencils, maybe they had games in their classrooms, construction paper, scissors."

The long-term fix is rebuilding, which will take at least two years.

Inappropriately Discarded Cigarette To Blame For Fire At James Monroe Elementary School

Officials said every effort will be made to keep the students and staff together.

"We did get all the answers that we need, yes, and in such a short amount of time," one woman said.

O'Malley told parents their kids will be bused to the college, and they will have the necessary textbooks and supplies.

For more information from the school, click here.

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(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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