When smoke began to drift into his family's basement apartment Tuesday night, Claudiu Neatu figured something was burning outside.

It was only after he left the apartment to check that he realized it was his own building. A fire had started on the other side of the long, low apartment complex at 9181 Academy Rd. in Torresdale, and it was spreading.

"My only thought was to go back in and get my wife and kids out," Neatu said. He had been outside for seconds, but when he went back in, the apartment was filling with thick, dark smoke - "toxic," he said.

The Neatus fled, leaving everything but their phones behind.

Still, Neatu thought, the fire was far enough away from the family's apartment that their possessions would be spared. But wind fueled the flames. They spread to the third floor, across the roof, and through the apartment complex. Hours later, firefighters were still battling a blaze that had been upgraded to four alarms.

Neatu, his wife, and his son and daughter had watched the blaze gut their building for nearly five hours before leaving for a temporary Red Cross shelter.

On Wednesday afternoon, with the building still closed off, Neatu worried about what he would find when he returned.

He said he was particularly concerned about his laptop - he runs a medical invoice company from home - and the computer held "10 years of my work."

His wife was concerned about their family photos.

His son had fled the house in only shorts and flip-flops.

"We're in the middle of nowhere right now," he said. "All our belongings are most likely irredeemably damaged."

The fire displaced about 100 people; 60 were still staying with the Red Cross at Lincoln High School on Wednesday.

Fire officials had not released a cause of the blaze.

The company that runs the property, M&M Management, declined to comment. Three people were injured during the fire and treated for smoke inhalation at Aria Health-Torresdale Campus.

At Lincoln on Wednesday, caseworkers filtered in and out of the shelter to interview displaced families. Neatu said he and his neighbors were grateful to the Red Cross, but hopeful they would be able to salvage something from the building and move on.

"We didn't imagine it was going to be that bad," Neatu said. But he said he was grateful, above all, that his family was safe: "We are very happy we are together."

awhelan@philly.com

215-854-2961 @aubreyjwhelan