The fire that destroyed two Conshohocken riverfront apartment buildings, setting back one of the nation's most successful small-town revivals, might have caused as much as $60 million in damage, according to the attorney for displaced tenants.
But the material losses weren't the most significant ones, some ex-tenants said this morning during a news conference arranged by the attorney, Robert J. Mongeluzzi, to coincide with the fire's first anniversary.
"We just feel an emptiness, and we can't fill it," Dr. Irwin Becker, 73, said of him and his wife, his voice cracking, and, at one point, breaking down. "I lost my wedding band. I lost everything."
Mongeluzzi said that the class-action suit filed on behalf of the residents of the 189 burned-out apartments remains unresolved.
"The litigation to this date has been fruitless," he said. A Montgomery County Court judge has issued a stay in an effort to get the parties to settle out of court. Mongeluzzi said the parties have been negotiating with a mediator, but "we haven't had any offers yet."
The defendants include Cavan Construction of Aston, Delaware County, and O'Neill Properties Group, the site developer.
"Frankly, I don't think it's appropriate to comment on pending litigation," said F. Warren Jacoby, attorney for O'Neill.
The county district attorney's office concluded that the blaze was set off by welders using oxyacetylene torches to remove improperly installed steel supports for balconies at a neighboring construction site.
This morning, Mongeluzzi distributed CDs that contained dramatic pictures taken from a building across from the fire site just as the blaze began, shortly before 5 p.m.
According to a report issued by the county earlier this year, the construction site, where wood framing had been erected before drywall installation, was a 41/2-story "lumberyard." The report said that within 15 minutes of responding, the wood framing was consumed.
Roberta Melman, 78, recalled that she was at a drugstore that afternoon when her husband told her she couldn't come home because their building was consumed with flames. Inside the apartment, she and her husband, Morton, 86, had 21 liquor-store boxes packed with heirlooms they planned to give their children and grandchildren.
"In the fire, I lost everything. I have nothing to give my grandchildren," Roberta Melman said. "At our age, we don't have time to replace those things."
"It would be nice for someone to take responsibility and actually apologize," said former tenant Jennifer Clemente, 32. "It's about the responsibility."