5-alarm W. Phila. apartment fire under control

Chopper 6 HD was over a large apartment building fire at 48th and Walnut in West Philadelphia.

January 10, 2011 8:59:23 PM PST
After nearly five hours, a multiple alarm fire that destroyed an apartment complex in West Philadelphia was finally placed under control, leaving rubble, smoke, and dozens of displaced residents in its wake.

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers announced the fire was under control shortly before 7:30 p.m.

The blaze broke out just before 2:30 p.m. at the Windermere Court Apartments on 4800 Walnut Street. Within the hour, a second alarm was struck. By 4:39 p.m., it was up to five.

The fire tore through five floors of apartments at the complex which has three large residential sections that are connected. Ayers said 89 of the 90 available units were occupied.

Fire officials think the fire began somewhere on the third or fourth floor of the building.

When firefighters first arrived, we're told, they had a hard time finding the flames; several hallways within the sprawling building already were thick with smoke.

"There was smoke in the building from the third and fourth floor. They started to look for it, when they found fire, they found fire inside the walls, inside the cockloft," Ayers said.

The flames spread from the west end of the building to the east faster than they could be contained and proving too much for the more than 160 firefighters battling the blaze, who were, though, able to successfully evacuate the entire building.

No residents of the building were seriously injured, though some pets did perish. A passerby was taken to a hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation and is expected to be fine.

Because the effort to contain the fire is ongoing, two nearby schools, West Philadelphia High School and Henry Lea Elementary School will be closed Tuesday.

"The safety of students and staff at our schools is and will always be a top priority of the District. Currently, members of the District's Facilities and Operations Department, in conjunction with City officials, are conducting an assessment of the schools to determine when they may reopen," the Philadelphia School District said in a statement issued Monday night.

The massive fire has left at least 100 people homeless. For many of those residents of The Windermere Court apartments, there were only minutes, if not seconds to escape the towering inferno.

Jake Fabian says the fire broke out next to his apartment on the third floor.

"We saw smoke coming out of the door and me and another gentleman tried to kick in the neighbor's door and we were unsuccessful," Fabian said.

The neighbor ended up not being inside and Fabian was able to get out safely.

Geneva Drakeford was one of hundreds who gathered on nearby city blocks to watch calling the fire beyond the scope of any they'd ever seen before.

"It's wild, it's crazy. It's a shame, all those people lost their homes," Drakeford said.

Joe Pierce is one of those, the father of a baby girl who is grateful he didn't lose more.

"No fire alarms went off or anything, nobody knocked on our door, I grabbed my daughter and came outside," Pierce said.

66-year-old Carl LeCoin was inside his second floor apartment when he opened his door.

"When I opened the door to go outside the apartment, there was so much smoke, you couldn't even see, so I got some paper towels and wet them and put them over my nose and I knew my way to the fire escape," LeCoin said.

Third floor resident Lara Figueroa searched frantically for her pet cat 'Aki' before having to flee for her life.

"She hid and we tore up the apartment trying to find her and we couldn't find her?we didn't think it was going to be this bad," Figueroa said.

Many never had the chance to grab anything out of their apartment.

"My daughter-in-law bought me shoes because I had no shoes on, I had no coat, so everybody brought me a coat," resident Jean Mapp told Action News.

Other residents say their only indication of a blaze was when they began to smell fire. Others weren't home at the time and were told the news via phone.

"I was at work and a friend of mine called me to tell me the building was on fire so I left," victim Mamadou Fall said.

One man says his wheelchair-bound brother was rescued by firefighters.

"My brother was stuck in the fire escape and the fire department got him and rolled him over to West Philadelphia High School," victim Wayne Grinnag said.

While the magnitude of the devastation has yet to be calculated, it is clear that some people lost everything.

For Jake Fabian whose unemployed could not imagine things could get any worse until this.

"I pretty much lost everything in the fire, I lost my wallet because we were looking for the cat," Fabian said.

Before the fire, Lara Figueroa was thinking about getting insurance.

"I was investigating apartment insurance, I don't have apartment insurance, I was looking into getting it," Lara Figueroa said.

The Red Cross provided food and shelter to displaced residents at the Alain Locke School at 46th Street and Haverford Avenue. Some families are also being placed in hotels as they try and figure out where they'll go next.

The heavy smoke resulted in the Red Cross moving the evacuation center from West Philadelphia High School to the Locke School.

The Fire Marshall is now investigating to determine a cause.