Fire marshal: ‘It looked like hell, like Dante’s Inferno’

Posted: September 01, 2010

Hundreds of firefighters battled a blaze at a Delaware County welding supply company Wednesday afternoon keeping the flames from igniting two massive propane tanks.

The fire, at Scully Welding Supply Corp. in Collingdale, broke out about 12:50 p.m. and quickly went to five alarms.

"It looked like hell, like Dante's Inferno," said Collingdale fire marshal George Kaiser. "The fire was at least two-stories high."

The main fire was declared under control around 4:30 p.m., and officials began letting almost all people return to their homes shortly after 7 p.m.

Three Scully employees were injured, including one seriously who was transported to Crozer-Chester Medical Center and was reported tonight in stable condition. Five firefighters were treated for heat related illnesses.

While firefighters worked, citizens in the area were evacuated, roads were closed and three shelters were set up. Many businesses in the immediate area closed, but a couple stayed open to help firefighters. Ice was taken from the Pathmark grocery store. Wendy's made burgers and Frosties for firefighters.

Thirty fire and emergency units from Delaware County responded and every police department in the county was represented. Fire companies from Chester, Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties helped at the scene or were on-call in case fires broke out elsewhere in Delaware County.

Firefighters worked into the night to tackle "hot spots," small fires that were mainly burning at a neighboring storage business.

Collingdale Police Chief Robert Adams said he hoped MacDade Boulevard, a main thoroughfare could be reopened by midnight.

A major concern into the early evening were two large propane tanks of 30,000 and 18,000 gallons, but they were secured, according to John Moors, chief of the Collingdale volunteer fire company No. 1. He said Boeing would move in with foam to smother what may remain of heat or fire.

Delaware County fire investigators and the District Attorney's Office were on the scene to check for causes.

Scully also operates a propane distribution business at the site, at the intersection of MacDade Boulevard and West Oak Lane.

When the fire first broke out, a black plume of smoke mushroomed over the area and was visible as far as Media. Flames reached 100 feet as shrapnel from dozens of exploding tanks rained down on MacDade Boulevard.

"Metal was flying all over," said Mayor Frank Kelly. "People were running in the streets."

Kelly said a worker at Scully was moving several four-foot propane tanks and dropped them, sparking the blaze.

Kelly described the conflagration as "the worst fire disaster since 1969 when a lumber facility caught on fire at MacDade and Cherry Street."

Rev. Perry Messick, a chaplain for the fire department, was in his office at the First Baptist Church of Collingdale when he heard the first explosions.

"It sounded like metal cans being thrown around or fireworks," Messick said.

Kaiser, the fire marshal, was working at the storage center he owns adjacent to the Scully plant. He said the blaze ignited his building. The fire destroyed two old Collingdale fire trucks he kept on the premises and storage units rented by 70 customers.

Scully Welding Supply Corp. is a private company, employing about 40 people at the 12,000-square-foot property. Documents list Jimmy Jenzano as the company's president.

His mother, Jeanne Scully Jenzano, said her father started the original business in 1947. She said her son was unsure of the cause of the fire in the early evening.

MacDade Boulevard, a four-lane commercial corridor, is usually jammed with vehicles at rush hour. This afternoon, the only things running up the road were red and yellow fire hoses. The boulevard was blocked off from Bartram to West Ashland Avenues.

The Red Cross set up three evacuation centers for displaced residents at Collingdale Borough Hall, the Glenolden School and the Folcroft Fire Department, Kelly said.

State Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R., Delaware) gave a helping hand lugging water and ice to firefighters.

"We took all the ice from [Pathmark's] seafood department," said Miccarelli, a veteran of the war in Iraq. "I thought I left heat and explosions over there."

In Glenolden, the Wendy's restaurant on MacDade Boulevard became a temporary shelter for tired and hungry firefighters. The staff was busy making dozens of free burgers and fries for the rescue workers.

"We'll help out as much as we can," said Manager Elena Kurza. "They wanted 100 [meals] and we'll start with that."

Eamon O'Hara, 43, was picking up his truck at Lene Auto Body early this afternoon when he saw people running from the supply company and screaming. He said that was enough to make him reach for his cell phone and shoot video.

"The explosions didn't start until the workers were out," said O'Hara, of Drexel Hill. He estimated there were 40 explosions in quick succession.

"The explosions were actually moving my hand, moving the camera, moving me," O'Hara said. "I was scared absolutely, the adrenaline, you know."

Greg Pecko, owner of Accurate Auto and Tire, was in his office when he heard the first of many deafening bangs.

"There was a series of loud explosions," Pecko said, "It shook the building."

When he went to find the source of the sounds, he said saw flames 75 feet high.

The fire scene was not far from Philadelphia International Airport, but no flights had to be redirected because of the smoke, an airport spokeswoman said.


Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or bmoran@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Larry King contributed to this article.

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