'TWO STREET' TRAGEDY
Fire destroys Fralinger String Band's props & floats
FOR MUMMERS, "Two Street" is a place to drink, dance and celebrate.
On Monday, 2nd Street became a place where members of the city's decorated Fralinger String Band faced premature defeat, as they watched months of preparation for the 2013 New Year's Day parade literally go up in flames.
A four-alarm fire erupted inside a warehouse at 2nd and Wharton streets where Fralinger rented space for its workshop and stored "dozens and dozens" of floats and props, according to chairman Steve Coper.
But no amount of flames or wrecked props could burn out the spirits of the band, which snagged fifth place in 2012, two years removed from a string of eight straight victories.
As the fire burned, members proudly donned Fralinger shirts at the Shamrock Pub a block down 2nd Street, swigging beers, watching firefighters douse the blaze and resolving to make a strong showing on New Year's Day despite the unexpected misfortune that befell them.
"We're a fightin' club. We'll never lie down and call it quits," Ken Hartery, 27, a Fralinger marshal who helped build the floats and props, said as he nursed a bottle of Miller Lite outside the bar.
"We try to keep high hopes, but it's sad to know all those months of work [are in there.] . . . . There's guys in there from 9 a.m. till nighttime. It's like building houses."
Band Captain Thomas D'Amore said this was the first year the band rented space in the warehouse, which, according to the Department of Licenses and Inspections, was home to an illegally run car-repair shop.
Maura Kennedy, an L&I spokeswoman, said warehouse owner Joseph Sigismondi was fined $4,000 in August for not having a license for the repair shop.
"The structure was zoned for the storage of automobiles, but not car repair," Kennedy said. L&I conducted three inspections a year ago, Kennedy said, before taking Sigismondi to court this summer.
"This guy can't say that he was not aware that he shouldn't have been doing those things," Kennedy said. "To the extent that we could [be], we were very aggressive."
Despite L&I's intervention, neighbors, fire officials and Fralinger members said the auto-repair shop appeared to be active.
Bill Ski, 47, said he used to rent space there from Sigismondi to store classic cars, street rods and motorcycles, but stopped after seeing what went on in the shop.
"We just didn't like the situation," Ski said. "I said, 'I want to get out of here,' because I knew this place was going to catch on fire."
The cause of the blaze remained under investigation late Monday, but Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said the first firefighters at the scene saw cars burning inside.
The combination of wood, plastics, glue and other materials used on Fralinger's floats and props, Ayers said, would have accelerated the conflagration.
"Anything like that inside is absolutely fueling the fire," Ayers said, adding that there were "several explosions" inside.
The extent of the damage to Fralinger's property wasn't known Monday night. Coper estimated that "tens of thousands of dollars" in floats and props were inside.
"What hurts so much is the guys who dedicated all their free time, coming down here for hours on end," D'Amore, 24, said. "[But] the good thing about being in a band like Fralinger is there's no shortage of dedicated members."
Coper said the band planned a haunted theme for the parade.
"It's a little scarier than we anticipated," Coper said as firefighters battled the blaze, which burned for more than four hours and took about 120 firefighters to bring under control.
In true Mummers tradition, Coper was tight-lipped about exactly what Fralinger had in store for the parade, keeping up hope that some of the props may be saved.
"The theme kind of speaks for itself. Imagine graveyards and skeletons and ghosts," said Coper, 53, who's been in Fralinger since he was 10. "If these props are at all salvageable, we'd be giving away information to our competitors."
Coper said support from other bands and brigades was overwhelming.
"We do this as a labor of love," Coper said. "It's really a community . . . . The outpouring of support from various Mummers groups and the community in general has been tremendous."
Fralinger members said they were more worried about neighbors affected by the fire.
An elderly woman was in stable condition at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital after being taken out of an adjoining property, Ayers said.
A house next to the warehouse was destroyed and at least three others were damaged.
"They're losing more than we are," said Brian Heston, 40, a 26-year veteran Fralinger sax player. "We can rebuild and do whatever we need to do. They're losing their homes."
Despite the setback, band members said spectators can "absolutely" still expect to see them on New Year's Day.
"We'll rise to the occasion," Coper said. "There's no question that [this band] will participate."
"Now it's time to rebuild," said bassist Ken Pooler, 24, looking north on 2nd Street toward the still-burning warehouse. "That spirit didn't go anywhere."
Donations to the Fralinger Fire Fund can be made at Fralinger.org.