The three-alarm blaze lit up the sky above South Philadelphia, destroying three buildings, and sending 30 people into the streets on a freezing December day.
There were strong winds of 17 to 25 mph, making the already cold day, with a low of 14 degrees, even more biting as residents watched the fire dance across the street, engulfing more homes full of presents.
This fire, 51 years ago, took place on the 1400 block of South 9th Street, one street over from Thursday’s massive blaze on the 1400 block of South Eighth Street, a possible reminder to some of that hellish Christmas morning.
“When I heard the explosion,” James Wolf told The Inquirer in 1968, "I thought it was another earthquake. I ran to the window and I could see the walls of the next door building buckling and I knew we had to get out.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do now,” the then-39-year-old said. “My kids didn’t even have a chance to see the gifts that Santa brought.”
Lucy DeFeo told The Inquirer she bought bicycles for her two sons and roller skates for her daughter.
“We’re fortunate that it’s the custom in our house to get up very early after Santa Claus leaves so we can see the gifts,” said DeFeo, who was 35 at the time. “But our place is really a mess now. I just don’t know what condition the toys are in.”
On Thursday, families were also in holiday mode, with one resident saying she was thinking about Christmas shopping when she felt a bang as if something crashed into the Earth.
The three-alarm fire and explosion on South Eighth Street on Thursday caused three houses to collapse and rendered two others structurally unstable. On Friday, searches were continuing for two people who are presumed dead.
The 1968 fire destroyed three buildings, including a three-story private residence, another home, and a luncheonette. Nine people were treated at hospitals, but no one died.
Both blazes, decades apart, took about three hours to control in frigid conditions. The temperature hit a low of 19 degrees and high of 29 Thursday, similar to the 1968 Christmas Day low of 14 and high of 25. And in typical South Philadelphia camaraderie, residents then and now rushed to help their neighbors any way they could once they felt the explosion rip through their neighborhood.
Nicholas Cimorelli, 48 at the time of the 1968 Christmas fire, ran outside after hearing the blast and helped evacuate residents living above luncheonette that would later collapse, The Inquirer reported at the time. All that was left after was rubble.
“Quick-acting policeman and neighbors pulled several victims from the wreckage, including a 13-year-old boy who had been buried in the rubble,” the Inquirer’s story about the 1968 blast read.