Neighbors flee as 7-alarm fire guts vacant warehouse

Fire swept through an abandoned warehouse early morning, collapsing the roof and forcing dozens of area residents to evacuate.

Intense heat jolted Pablo Diaz awake at 4 a.m. Wednesday in his West Kensington home as a seven-alarm fire raged just around the corner in an abandoned warehouse.

"We could hear the windows cracking, so we decided to leave. We couldn't even get out the front door. You could feel the heat and flames coming toward you," said Diaz, who with his wife and four children evacuated from the back of their H Street home.

Diaz's house, along with those of six other families, was destroyed in the blaze, which started at the abandoned four-story brick warehouse at 3222-58 H St. The structure measures 75 by 200 feet.

Scores of people within a two-block radius were temporarily evacuated.

The three houses next to Diaz collapsed, he said. So did the front of his house, the ceiling between the first and second floors, and the roof.

"It's not liveable anymore. If you so much as touch it, I think it'll fall," said Diaz, who plans to live in the nearby house of his son, Pablo Jr., until he can find another house.

Thomas Perez, a relief worker who rushed to the scene about 3:45 a.m., reported seeing flames about 100 feet high.

"The heat from the flames was intense. It was melting awnings and plastic siding on nearby houses," Perez said.

Although fire department officials said they had an adequate water supply to fight the fire, residents and relief services personnel reported a water main break in the area about 11:30 a.m., along with power and gas outages in the neighborhood. Michael Wood, a PECO spokesman, said that 460 customers lost power and that power was restored to about 260 of them by the afternoon.

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said the blaze drew 175 members and more than 50 pieces of fire equipment. Two firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion but returned to work, while another suffered injuries and was in stable condition in Temple University Hospital, he said. One resident was injured and was also in stable condition in Temple University Hospital, Ayers added.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, Ayers said, because an unstable 125-foot tower connected to the building must be removed before an inspection can be conducted.

One person was rescued from the second floor of the warehouse when firefighters arrived but left before he could be questioned, Ayers said.

City Managing Director Loree Jones said the building was co-owned by Ayres-Phila Inc. and the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development.

The Licensing and Investigations Department inspected the warehouse and sealed it last year, but a new round of inspections earlier this year found several violations, she said. Licensing and Investigations had started the paperwork to take the owners to equity court, Jones said.

According to Licensing and Investigations personnel, the violations found in the warehouse include structural problems such as cracking and holes as well as break-ins after the building was sealed.

Neighborhood residents said they had long complained to authorities that the warehouse was a hazard.

"We've had fires in there before, several times. Never this bad, though," Diaz said.

Diaz and other residents said that drug users frequently broke into the building. "No one does anything but board up the windows," he said.

Said LaTanya Arrington, who lives a block away from the warehouse: "They should have knocked that building down a long time ago. This is just crazy."

Ed Marks, the fire department's acting deputy chief, said the department had identified the warehouse as a risk.

"We were aware of this building and anticipated this kind of a problem, so we knew how to handle it. It was an old, dilapidated building with weather damage," Marks said.

The Salvation Army and Red Cross aided victims and firefighters, providing hot and cold beverages, more than 300 snacks, and more than 100 cold towels, according to Randall Thomas of the Salvation Army. Red Cross workers said that the groups served 128 residents and 29 families.

Maureen Tomoschuk, Red Cross senior director of emergency services for Southeastern Pennsylvania, said the agency has begun longer-term efforts to assist some of the displaced families, who would be housed temporarily at the Red Cross center in West Philadelphia, at 40th and Powelton Streets.

Said Major Philip Wittenberg, corps officer for the Salvation Army: "We're especially worried about people without homeowners' or renters' insurance."

Contact staff writer Katie Stuhldreher at 215-854-2601 or