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In Old City, 'We all spent the night on the street watching our homes go up in flames'

The fire displaced hundres and destroyed or heavily damaged two apartment buildings and several businesses.

A four-alarm fire broke out early Sunday morning  on Chestnut Street between Second and Third Streets, causing the evacuation of about 150.
A four-alarm fire broke out early Sunday morning on Chestnut Street between Second and Third Streets, causing the evacuation of about 150.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT

When the fire alarm went off about 3 a.m. Sunday, Al Gury thought it was just another false one. Nothing more than a nuisance, like so many that had gone off during the four decades that the artist had lived in his studio apartment on Chestnut Street near Third in Philadelphia's Old City.

He grabbed his cell phone and trudged out onto the street wearing a T-shirt, flannel pajama pants and flip-flops. He figured he'd be able to go back in soon enough and get to his six cats and four parakeets.

"I went downstairs thinking that this would be one more incidence of annoyance," Gury said.

>> UPDATE: Building damaged in Old City fire declared 'imminently dangerous'

Instead, he watched in horror and panic as his apartment building became engulfed in flames.

"I tried to go back up to get my cats and the fireman would not let me return. I pleaded with him to go up. They felt it was too dangerous," Gury said. "We all spent the night on the street watching our homes go up in flames."

The four-alarm fire displaced hundreds from at least four buildings, including a Best Western hotel. Nearly half were evacuated across the street to the Museum of the American Revolution. Two firefighters were treated for minor injuries at area hospitals.

In addition to two, five-story apartment buildings, the fast-moving fire gutted or severely damaged several restaurants and bars and closed the museum to visitors who had traveled from near and far with plans to spend Presidents' Day weekend touring Philadelphia's historic sites. Eighty-five people had registered for a museum breakfast with a George Washington impersonator, which was repurposed to feed 60 people who took shelter there, said Alex McKechnie, a museum spokeswoman.

The fire dealt another setback to the Old City business community, which recently rebounded after a years-long construction project had closed a portion of Third Street and drove off patrons.

The first report of flames came at 3:13 a.m. Firefighters battled them for more than nine hours, declaring the fire under control – but not yet out – at 12:23 p.m. No injuries were reported, said Noelle Foizen, deputy director of the city's Office of Emergency Management.

"It was a rager, so they were really fortunate that they got everyone out," she said.

Crews were still extinguishing hot spots Sunday night, and Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said it wouldn't be until Monday morning before officials could get inside affected buildings.

Gury, 66, an oil painter and professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, said he awoke with a start just before the fire alarm sounded.

"The neighbors in my building said they heard some kind of explosion in what they think was the basement and it shook the whole building," Gury said. "It sounded almost like a car had run into the front of the building. It was that aggressive."

The first floor of both Gury's building and an adjacent apartment building had been occupied by Revolution Diner, which closed a few months ago, residents said. Property and court records list its owner as Imad Dawara, who previously had operated a nightspot, Barra, and a hookah lounge, B Side, in the space. It was unclear why the diner had closed. Dawara did not immediately return a phone call from a reporter on Sunday.

The fire ruined the Little Lion restaurant on the corner of Third and Chestnut and seriously damaged several nearby establishments, including the Best Western Plus Independence Park Hotel, and a trendy refurbished bar – Gina 45 – on Third Street. A hostel on Bank Street was evacuated but was not damaged and was expected to be open Monday.

Watching the firefighters at work, smoke billowing overhead, nearby business owners expressed relief that no one was hurt but worried about the future. They recalled how a construction project, which began sometime in 2011 and went on for years, choked off vehicular and pedestrian traffic along Third Street, between Market and Chestnut. At the time, the Philadelphia Water Department was replacing several hundred feet of failed, 160-year-old sewer line. Some merchants grew so frustrated that they packed up and moved their shops.

On Sunday afternoon, business owner Bob Sel stood outside ABI Gift Shop on Third Street and watched firefighters douse the Little Lion and Gina 45, just across the street. Sel said he drew many customers from the now-closed restaurants and the Best Western around the corner.

"About four years back, the street was closed for one year when they were doing the sewer restoration so now as everything is coming back, this is happening, you know?" said Sel, who opened his shop nine years ago. "It really concerns me. This is kind of a huge setback again."

Around noon Sunday, Frank Staranowicz, who is in charge of building maintenance at Gina 45, watched from the sidewalk as five firefighters entered the bar with axes.

"A lot of smoke just started coming out of there. It's still coming out of there," Staranowicz said. "I'm thinking, `Oh my God.' "

A firefighter and police officer on the street told him not to worry; the smoke was coming from a courtyard area behind the two apartment buildings that caught fire. It hadn't spread to the bar.

Still, damage was extensive.

"There is water and smoke damage inside," Staranowicz said. "It's bad. It's bad. The whole kitchen was new and that's all flooded out. That means I've got to replace all the walls and everything is going to have to be redone because of mold."

Early Sunday morning, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said the fire initially seemed manageable. Firefighters were able to get through the front door of 239 Chestnut when they first arrived and began evacuations. Despite some fire and smoke, the firefighters could see clear to the back wall of the building, he said.

Conditions rapidly changed. Light smoke and some fire became a heavy blaze with zero visibility. Some firefighters had to dive through first-floor windows to escape, Thiel said.

Evacuations of the apartment building and the hotel, along with other residences along the block, continued in the early-morning cold as the fire grew to two, three, and four alarms.

"Everything's in there," said Diane Londt, pointing toward the Best Western. She had been awakened hours earlier by the sound of families running down the hall to evacuate. She and  friend Debbie Mann are visiting from Yorkshire in Great Britain.

The cause of the fire – or where it started in the apartment building – won't be known for some time. The building, Thiel said, was structurally unsound, with cracks forming in the sides and structural damage within.

Gury, the art professor, lost everything. He did not have hope that his five cats and the kitten he was fostering, or the parakeets, survived. He knew much of his artwork was gone.

In the rush to evacuate, he had left his wallet in the apartment, so had no money or clothes. He spent Sunday afternoon at the CVS Pharmacy at Third and Market Streets, where the pharmacist refilled prescriptions he also had left behind. A stranger who overheard him talking about the fire handed him $20, which Gury said he used to buy toiletries and other necessities. He is staying with friends.

"The whole thing," he said, "is just tragic."

Staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.