ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, N.J. -- More than two dozen elderly nuns and two priests from the St. Joseph's Sisters of Peace convent atop the Palisades in Englewood Cliffs were among the evacuees in a fierce utility building fire Wednesday morning at St. Michael's Villa.
"I would say they're in their 70s, 80s and 90s," Police Chief Michael Cioffi said.
A few first responders sustained injuries, but none were considered serious, he said.
A cat belonging to one of the retired nuns died, the chief added.
Twenty-nine people in all were taken from the convent to the gym at the St. Peter's University campus in the complex, Cioffi said. Several were to be moved to Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck as a precaution, he said.
The four-alarm blaze ignited around 7 a.m. in an air conditioning unit in a two-story utility building in the complex off Hudson Terrace, Cioffi said.
It took more than four hours to fully extinguish the fire, which collapsed the utility building -- which had several cars parked beneath it -- and caused smoke or other damage to the four-story residence, he said.
"It doesn't appear to be suspicious at this time, but that's not for me to say," the chief said. "It must be investigated."
The Bergen County Prosecutor's Arson Investigation Squad was handling that, assisted by borough detectives.
Huge smoke plumes could be seen from across the Hudson River as firefighters kept the blaze from spreading.
The Roman Catholic Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace was founded in 1884 in Nottingham, England by Mother Clare (Margaret Anna Cusack), and has its world headquarters in the complex atop the Palisades.
The Englewood Cliffs Fire Department wrote that it "would like to thank the mutual aid companies from Fort Lee Volunteer Fire Department, City of Englewood Fire Department, Leonia Fire Department Company No. 1, Edgewater Fire Company #1, Cliffside Fire, The Palisades Park Fire Dept., Fairview Fire Department, Ridgefield Fire Department, Tenafly Fire Department, Teaneck Fire Department, and Ridgefield Park Fire Department for the assistance this morning at the multi-alarm fire at 399 Hudson Terrace.
"We would also like to thank Englewood Cliffs Police Department Bargaining Unit, Palisades Interstate Parkway Police, Hackensack Fire Department MSU, Teaneck Box 54, and the Englewood Hospital EMS and MCI units for their response and assistance."