The fire began on the fourth floor of the Overbrook Gardens apartments on the 900 block of North 63rd Street around 2:15 a.m. Monday.
Some people rushed to the scene in Overbrook looking for loved ones they hadn't heard from.
"My aunt lives in there and I'm worried about her right now; she's not answering the phone, she lives on the first floor," family member Michael Mays said.
With fears that the building may collapse at any moment, and after seeing the roof cave in, firefighters were forced to fight the blaze from the outside.
PECO was asked to shut the power off in the area, affecting other residents on the block. This was a safety precaution for firefighters who were climbing up on metal ladders Once the power was cut, fire crews began attacking from above.
Officials evacuated adjacent buildings due to the possibility of a collapse.
"This was a very challenging firefight. A large building, pretty heavy fire load, residential building and, of course, the weather conditions don't help," Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said.
Two firefighters, among the approximate 180 called to the scene, suffered minor burns and were treated on site.
"Believe it or not, this could have been a lot worse," Thiel said.
There have been no reported injuries to any of the more than 50 residents displaced by the fire; however, officials say they have not yet been able to confirm that everyone has made it out safely.
"We don't have a list of everybody who is in every building, so there is a constant process of awareness that we are going to be going through with the building management and with the residents," Thiel said.
As firefighters worked for hours pouring water onto the multi-alarm fire, the roads surrounding the scene became an icy mess. Nearby trees were turned to ice sculptures. With fire trucks, emergency vehicles, and hoses scattered across the street, and now iced-over roads, firefighters were having to maneuver around multiple obstacles while tackling the fierce flames.
Along with the fire personnel, numerous agencies responded to the scene.
The American Red Cross was helping those evacuated and the Red Paw Relief assisted the pets affected by the fire. The Office of Emergency Management kept residents aware of the conditions - including road closures and SEPTA detours. The Streets Department salted the icy roads to help firefighters.
"Incredible effort by your Philadelphia Fire Department, our firefighters, our medics, all the support personnel and all the other agencies you see here, and all around," Thiel said.
The fire was placed under control around 8:15 a.m., though crews continued to douse hotspots into the afternoon hours.
"Five-alarm fires are fairly rare. Our last 5-alarm fire was back in May, 21st and Lippincott, the vacant warehouse," Thiel said.
Beyond the possibility of fire damage, neighbors on the block were dealing with the power outage. At its peak, PECO said 1,700 customers were in the dark, but they were restoring power back to all those affected, but Monday afternoon that number had dropped to 84.
A warming center was opened for the nearly 60 people displaced residents at Commodore John Barry Elementary School located at 5900 Race Street.
Later in the day, the Red Cross set up temporary housing for residents in the gymnasium of West Philadelphia High School. Thirty eight people remained at the shelter as of 10 p.m.
"That's an unusually large number. Obviously, when you're dealing with an apartment complex, you're dealing with mass numbers," Guy Triano of the Red Cross said. "We will have caseworkers on the scene to assist them, for any extended stay as to where they are going to go and any financial assistance they'll need."
Resident Dwayne Vinson saw the flames moving closer to his apartment which is located in the back of the building.
"I don't have anything, but the clothes on my back and I don't know what I'm going to do," resident Dwayne Vinson said.
Commissioner Thiel said this was one of the worst fires the department has responded to this year.
"It's really terrible for folks to have that damage and lose their place to live around the holiday," said Triano. " Our hearts go out to everybody."
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