They were calling him “Spider-man,” and he was the talk of the Westpark Apartments in Powelton on Friday, a day after he scaled 15 floors of fence-enclosed balconies to alert his bedridden mother to a fire in the 19-story building.
Residents of the Philadelphia Housing Authority high-rise were calling the man a brave hero, although no one seemed to know his name. When 6ABC interviewed him Friday afternoon, he was identified only as Jermaine, 35.
“When your adrenaline’s pumping, your mom’s up there, you think she’s dying, you’ll do anything you can,” he told the station, adding that his mother is bedridden and could not get out on her own.
Witnesses watched him risk his life to alert his mother to the fire, which authorities said started about 9:20 p.m. Thursday in a fourth-floor trash chute in the high-rise at 4445 Holden St. The Fire Department said the blaze did not spread beyond the chute and was placed under control at 9:36. Its cause was under investigation Friday.
Andrea Foster, president of the Westpark Residents Council, said about 200 residents were evacuated Thursday night and all but four had returned by Friday morning; those four were hospitalized for smoke inhalation, she said. The building has 114 units, 98 of which are occupied.
For Jermaine and those who watched him from the ground, it was a tense and nerve-racking episode. As it turned out, his mother was among several residents who chose not to leave and stayed on balconies to get fresh air, Foster said.
“He said, ‘Oh, my God. My mom’s upstairs and she’s in a wheelchair, she can’t come out. I got to get up there and wake her up,’” recalled Sherron Weeks, 40, a five-year resident of the building. “When he got up there, at least he got to holler at her to say, ‘Wake up.’”
“God had him. God had his back, because he cared,” Weeks said, sitting on a bench in the playground area in front of the building. “One mistake and it would have been so bad.”
“The gentleman who everyone is calling Spider-man does not live here, his mom does,” Foster said. He arrived there to find his sister and a nephew outside with other residents, and learned his mother was still inside, Foster said. He ran to the rear and started climbing after firefighters refused to allow him to enter, she said.
Video captured by TV helicopters showed him climbing down the side of the building, and initial reports said he was escaping the fire. He told 6ABC he climbed to his mother’s balcony on the 15th floor, and she assured him she was OK. Then he climbed down.
“I think what he did was crazy, but when you’re worried about your mom, you do crazy stuff,” Foster said.
As work crews cleaned and repaired the damage caused by the fire that sent thick smoke up the chute to the 19th floor, residents milled about the lawn talking about the man.
“He kept slipping and stuff,” said Josie Young, 28, who lives on the 19th floor. “Every time he slipped, my heart jumped. Oh, my God. He was the true Spider-man.”
She said she watched the man after police officers helped her, her mother, and her 4-year-old daughter get out of the building.
Young said the man was waving a white shirt attached to a stick for several minutes after reaching the 15th floor. “He was waving for a long time,” she said. “I was screaming, ‘Help him, get him out! Help him!’”
Once he was safely on the ground, he got a round of applause, she said. A Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson said he was not arrested.
Jermaine told 6ABC that a police officer treated him kindly.
“He told me if I didn’t leave, I was going straight to jail, straight to jail,” the climber said. “Because that was his job. But he actually did cut me a break. He understood the circumstances.”
Jermaine told 6ABC that his mother, Sheila, 65, was not surprised by what he did. “She knows I’ll go above and beyond,” he said.
“As kids, we used to jump roofs,” he said. “I’m glad I had the practice.”