Huge blaze routs 89 families from apartments in W. Phila.

The fire that engulfed the apartment building burned into the evening, and could be seen for miles.
The fire that engulfed the apartment building burned into the evening, and could be seen for miles.
Posted: January 11, 2011

Donna Moore was driving on I-95 in Delaware County when she saw the smoke - big, heavy plumes of black and gray that seemed to reach from the streets of West Philadelphia up into the heavens.

"It looked like Saigon," she said last night. "I started freaking out. I thought my whole block was on fire. My 12-year-old son was at home alone."

Moore battled her rattling nerves all the way to 48th and Walnut streets, where she found the source of the smoke: a ferocious five-alarm fire that burned for almost five hours inside the Windermere Court Apartments, just down the block from Moore's house, which wasn't touched by the blaze.

"I've never seen anything like this," she said.

City officials said that the fire, which started about 2:30 p.m. and wasn't brought under control until shortly before 7:30 last night, displaced 89 families who lived in the sprawling, four-story apartment complex.

Residents ranged from toddlers to college students to wheelchair-bound elderly folks, all of whom escaped the inferno without harm, said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers.

Despair and sadness hung in the air inside the auditorium at West Philadelphia High School, were many evacuees were aided by Red Cross and Salvation Army officials.

"I'm still a bit numb," said a 24-year-old woman who lived on the third floor and chose not to give her name. "I just came home from work. I wish I could have grabbed some of my photos. . . . I will never get them back."

The woman broke down in tears.

Ayers and Mayor Nutter offered sympathy and encouragement to the displaced residents.

"I know this is painful, I know this hard," Nutter said to some evacuees inside the auditorium.

"Start looking at how you're going to move forward," Ayers told others. "Say some prayers for everybody. It's going to be a tough time."

Lydia, who did not give her last name and who said that she is a maintenance worker at the Windermere, noted that she was in the building about 2:15 p.m. when a resident on the third floor yelled something about smoke.

"He said it was coming from the back apartment on the third floor," she said. "Everybody got out of there. They had smoke alarms."

Ayers said it appeared that the fire started on the third floor and spread quickly to the fourth floor and the roof, where orange flames were visible for much of the afternoon and night.

More than 140 firefighters battled the blaze in the frigid cold and in the darkness.

None of the firefighters was injured, but a member of the city's fleet-management department slipped on a patch of ice and suffered a minor injury, Ayers said.

The fire marshal and other officials will return to the scene today to begin their investigation into what sparked the blaze, he said.

West Philadelphia High School and Henry Lea Elementary School will both be closed today because of the fire.