Sifting through aftermath of 5-alarm fire

George Kaiser looks over the smoldering remains of his business after the Delco propane fire. (Mari Schaefer / Staff Photographer)
George Kaiser looks over the smoldering remains of his business after the Delco propane fire. (Mari Schaefer / Staff Photographer) (Joshua Mellman)
Posted: September 02, 2010

George Kaiser walked through the smoldering remains of his Collingdale self-storage business Thursday and gently pushed a basketball-size chunk of metal with the toe of his boot.

"It's a piece of a cylinder," he said, one of hundreds of shards of flying metal and chunks of concrete that rained down in the explosive fire Wednesday at Scully Welding Supply Corp., landing on rooftops, streets, and a high school ball field blocks away.

But for Kaiser, 60, whose three acres of rental units are next door to the Collingdale welding-supply company, heat, fire, and water damage left a landscape of soot, clutter, broken bikes, and wrecked memories.

His customers, such as the Pascale family of Collingdale, sifted through what remained of their possessions, trying to salvage mementos, furniture, and household goods. Eighty of the 350 storage units were lost in the fire; others suffered smoke damage.

Collingdale Mayor Frank Kelly said Thursday that state fire investigators might need a month to determine the cause of the fire, which sent shrapnel from exploding propane tanks high into the air, prompting the evacuation of homes and businesses.

The fire, which raged out of control for hours, was thought to have originated in an accident at the plant.

The blaze started shortly before 1 p.m., and the main concern was two large propane tanks - 30,000 gallons and 18,000 gallons - in back of the building. More than 300 emergency workers from 30 companies in Delaware County and surrounding counties fought the five-alarm blaze. The fire was declared under control about 4:30 p.m., and officials began letting almost everyone return home shortly after 7 p.m.

An unidentified Scully employee was in critical but stable condition Thursday at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, according to a spokesman. Two other people injured in the fire, and five firefighters who suffered heat-related illness received hospital treatment and were released, according to Kelly.

"We were extremely lucky there were no fatalities," he said. Kelly, one of the first to arrive at the burning building, said he was almost hit by shrapnel.

A notice on Scully's website said the company thanked "everyone for their patience and support during these challenging times." A woman who answered the phone at the company's Hatfield office said no one was available to make a statement.

Kaiser, who is also the Collingdale fire marshal, said he was at work when he heard the explosion and saw flames and the smaller propane tanks "flying like rockets" through the sky. He and his wife, who also works at the shop, ran to their home on the property, "scooped up the dog, got my mother-in-law, and left."

Surveying the damage Thursday, he pointed to a melted Jet Ski, disfigured lamps, and blackened dishes. A faint odor of propane still hung in the air.

"We lost well over $1 million," Kaiser said. Now, he said, it all becomes an "insurance and legal issue."

Most precious, he said, were his two antique fire trucks, now just rusted and burned-out hulks in demolished storage units. Also destroyed were his father's farm truck, bought new in 1928 for the family's Folcroft farm; and memorabilia from his 27 years in the Navy and Navy Reserve. It will be hard to put a value on sentiment, he said.

Still, "better to have a dead fire truck," Kaiser said, "than to have a dead person in there."

Candida Pascale, 31, of Havertown, spent Thursday with her mother, Delores Pascale, 53, of Collingdale, picking over the remains of her family's storage unit.

"It was all family history," Candida Pascale said. The unit - which held her grandmother's wedding dress, grandfather's WWII uniforms, photo albums, family jewelry, yearbooks, and her deceased father's possessions - was destroyed.

It also held all the wedding and shower gifts for her brother and his fiancé, who are to be married Sept. 11.

"You can't sit and dwell anymore," Candida Pascale said. "You save the small pieces of memorabilia and move on, holding the rest in your head."

Kaiser said that he was numb and that it would take years for his business to recover. The magnitude of what happened will probably hit him, he said, when he begins to salvage his historical memorabilia, Navy uniforms, and photographs.

"You try to put a brave face on," he said, "and do what you have to do."


Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or mschaefer@phillynews.com.

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