``The fire started on one of the upper floors and spread quickly throughout, endangering homes in the immediate vicinity,'' Hairston said.
The towering brick warehouse, which neighbors said was used to store Dougherty brand whisky until it closed 20 years ago, is in the 1100 block of Front Street, just below Girard Avenue.
Twelve homes on Lee Street near Girard, which runs along the warehouse's east side, were evacuated, along with seven other residences on nearby side streets.
``I opened my door, smelled smoke, then noticed everybody getting real scared. I dialed 911, then fled from my home,'' said 19-year-old Rachel Remley. It was her dog, Butch, that was rescued from the van in a lot near the burning building.
Deborah Allen and Rafael Valido, also of the 1100 block of Lee Street, fled their home with their two children, Guillermo and Tomas.
``We saw the smoke, and got out so quickly that I only had enough time to grab my pocketbook,'' said Allen.
The blaze broke out at 5:32 p.m. and within an hour it had gone to six alarms. It took almost two hours to bring it under control.
Gladys Timberlake lives on the same block in a house she shares with four dogs, five cats and a rabbit. Holding plastic supermarket bags stuffed with animal food, she fretted over her pets.
``There's so much fire and they're so helpless,'' she said as embers drifted over the roof of her home.
Hairston said there was an unconfirmed report that police were questioning an arson suspect. ``But that's all I know,'' he said.
``We will just have to wait and see what happens,'' Hairston told reporters.
SEPTA had to suspend Frankford Elevated train service between Spring Garden and Huntingdon stations, putting 65 shuttle buses into service to handle thousands of stranded elevated commuters.
SEPTA press spokesman Stephan Rosenfeld said shuttle service would continue this morning between Spring Garden and Berks streets, with 80 buses running.
Most displaced Lee Street residents last night said they planned to stay with friends or relatives.
A temporary shelter also was set up at Bodine High School for International Affairs, 4th and George streets.