A 51-year-old woman died in an apartment fire Saturday morning in Lansdowne.

Margaret McClernan died of smoke and soot inhalation, according to the Delaware County medical examiner. The fire, described as accidental by the medical examiner, destroyed a portion of the three-story apartment building on South Wycombe Avenue.

The blaze started about 5 a.m. on the third floor of the Keystone Apartments, where McClernan lived.

All other residents were safely evacuated and were sheltered at a Red Cross "comfort center" at the Twentieth Century Club.

"I was sleeping when I heard the alarm go off. . . . I thought it was routine," said Jesse Brooks, a National Guard member who has lived in the building for a year. At first, he said, he watched from across the street and nothing much happened, "but then it just got big."

Police arrived and began knocking and kicking at doors to alert residents of the fire, in some cases even breaking down doors.

"When they kicked, I jumped up and went to the door," said Arthur Wesley, 66. "It's just a shame what happened."

Wesley was referring to the death of McClernan, known to residents as Miss Margie. McClernan was well-liked and always greeted her neighbors, they said, describing her as friendly, pleasant, and "really nice."

All expressed sadness and shock at her death. Jacqueline Goldsmith, a resident of the apartment building for four years, said her great-grandson and McClernan's granddaughter would often play together on weekends when they both happened to be visiting.

"She was really pleasant," Goldsmith said tearfully. "I'm just trying to process this whole thing."

The fire caused extensive damage to a portion of the apartment building, which contains 24 one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Dave Schrader, Red Cross communications director, said his organization helped 21 families find shelter Saturday. Forty-three people were displaced, he said, 14 of them children.

Residents were able to return to the building later Saturday morning to retrieve belongings, escorted by officials who then locked the building. Water, smoke damage, and lack of utilities made it impossible for them to remain. Those who did not find shelter with friends and family were put up in a nearby hotel.

Contact Jonathan Lai
at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.