The fire was first spotted by police on routine traffic detail who noticed smoke coming from the 100-year-old building. By the time fire companies arrived, fire was coming from the back of the building and police were on the top floor finishing the evacuations, said Robert Childs, chief of Darby Fire Company 1.
"My hat is off to the Darby police," Childs said. "They did an outstanding job of removing people from that structure."
The fire started at 10:56 p.m. Wednesday and was under control about 12:15 a.m. Thursday, Childs said. About 10 companies from surrounding communities with more than 70 firefighters responded to the blaze, he said.
A small fire rekindled Thursday and was quickly extinguished, Childs said.
He said the age of the building made it difficult for his crews to fight the fire, and Smythe described the interior as a maze.
"Fortunately, we go in there a lot," Smythe said. "My guys knew what the inside of the building was like."
An African food market is in the front of the building, with apartments in the rear and above, Smythe said. There have been a number of renovations that have broken the original three apartments into about 15, he said.
The American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania said five families with a total of nine individuals were staying at the Red Cross shelter in University City. In all, 31 people were displaced, the Red Cross said.
One woman was taken to a hospital for anxiety, Childs said. "It is an emotional thing to see your property go up in smoke," he said. Two other people were treated at the scene.
Childs said the building had smoke detectors, but he did not know if they were working.
The building sustained substantial damage, Smythe said. The fire started in the rear of an apartment and spread up through the walls. Firefighters had to cut a hole in the roof and break most windows, he said.
Smythe said Peco had been called to the complex twice in the last week for reports of a gaslike smell, but nothing was found.
Childs said state police arson investigators have been called as a precaution. Investigators are looking at surveillance video from the area to help determine the cause of the fire.
Childs said that had the fire started a few hours later, when residents were asleep, "we'd still be there with body bags. No doubt."