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Rutgers researcher dies in apartment fire

Courtesy of the New Jersey Center for Biomaterials | Vinod Damodaran, second from the right, died after a fire broke out in his apartment last week. His wife and daughter also perished during the blaze. – Photo by null

University researcher Vinod Damodaran, 44, was identified as 1 of 3 victims in a fatal two-alarm fire that damaged an apartment complex in Hillsborough on Monday night.

The fire was reported just before 10 p.m. and was brought under control an hour later. His wife, Sreeja Thekkekoical-Sasi, 38, and daughter, Aardra Nair, 13, were also pronounced dead at the scene. Their identities were withheld until Friday after family members could be notified.

Damodaran worked with the New Jersey Center for Biomaterials, having studied at Rutgers as a post-doctoral associate since 2013, said Louli Kourkounakis, program coordinator with the organization, in an email.

"Quickly, Vinod showed that he was a unique individual both as a scientist and as a person. He was a superb chemist, a go-to person with any question, big and small, profound and trivial. He helped all of us with an enthusiasm that we are going to miss," Kourkounakis said.

Damodaran was passionate about the work he did at the center, dedicating a lot of time toward research. He was also a friendly and approachable person, Kourkounakis said. 

"As a person, he was one of the most cheerful, energetic and kindest souls that we have known. He was the glue who would bring people in the lab together to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner, an award, or the publication of a paper," Kourkounakis said. "His joy for life was infectious and left a lasting impression on everyone who came in contact with him.  We can never forget his smile, his words, and his enthusiasm towards life."

At the time of the fire, he lived at Hillsborough Garden Apartments.

Cira Palmera, a neighbor and witness to the fire, told NJ Advance Media that she saw an explosion, which blew out the apartment's windows at the time. Another witness, John Catlin, said he thought the explosion was due to an electrical fire.

The fire was extinguished within three hours of its being reported, though it damaged four apartments in that time. No other injuries were reported from the blaze.

"What happened is very tragic and sad. He had worked hard to get to where he was and had dreams for many things that he wanted to accomplish in his life. No words can even describe the depth of our grief since his passing has left a large void in our lives," Kourkounakis said. "Vinod will truly be missed as a wonderful colleague, a great researcher, and a gem of a person."

Nikhilesh De is the news editor of The Daily Targum. He is a School of Engineering senior. Follow him on Twitter @nikhileshde for more.

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