Greg Heller's apartment was more than a place to live. For Heller, a 24-year-old documentary filmmaker, the fourth-floor apartment was also the office where he edited video, kept his equipment, and stored the footage that eventually became movies.
On Monday afternoon, after a neighbor had pounded on his door and alerted him to fire alarms blaring in the hallway, Heller stood on the street, watched flames shoot from the top of the West Philadelphia building, and realized that he might have lost it all.
"It's my work, it's my life," Heller said Monday night, hours after he and the rest of the building's residents were evacuated. "It's not even the cost - it's thousands of hours of work."
More than 160 firefighters battled the five-alarm blaze that raged through the Windermere Court Apartments at 48th and Walnut Streets.
The fire was first reported at 2:35 p.m., said Deputy Fire Chief Willie Williams. Clouds of thick black smoke could be seen from Center City, and hours after the fire started, the orange glow from the top of the building was still visible from blocks away. A third and a fourth alarm were sounded before 3:45 as the fire began to move through the loft and tore through the roof, Williams said. Additional alarms were sounded at 4 and 4:30 p.m., drawing more than 50 pieces of equipment from all corners of the city. The fire was declared under control at 7:25.
Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said that it was a challenge to get some residents out, but that no serious injuries were reported and all residents were accounted for. Late Monday, a fire official said one person was taken to Presbyterian Hospital with smoke inhalation and a city worker was taken to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania after falling.
Ayers said it was unclear how the fire started, but it got into the walls and spread upward. Firefighters faced additional challenges due to the frigid temperature and icy streets, Ayers said.
The Fire Marshal's Office is investigating the cause and checking the building's alarm systems. Firefighters were evacuated from the building for their own safety as the flames spread, and cranes lifted hoses to pour water onto the roof.
Mayor Nutter visited the scene to offer support and said the building's approximately 98 residents range from families with children to students and seniors.
"People are concerned about pets and medicine," Nutter said. "It's just a terrible feeling."
Heller felt the same way. He said he had spent the last two summers in Peru, shooting footage for a documentary on a children's home.
He was in his home office working when the alarms went off and did not know anything was wrong until his neighbor knocked on his door. Even when he saw smoke in the hallway, he thought it might be from someone burning food.
Nija Rivera, another fourth-floor resident, thought the same thing when she heard the fire alarms go off.
"It goes off every once in a while, so I didn't think anything of it," said Rivera, 24, a graduate student at Temple University. Still, she put on shoes and a coat and went down to the lobby to make sure.
Soon after, another resident came down with her cats, saying there was smoke in her apartment.
The Fire Department came moments later and ushered everyone outside, she said.
About an hour later, Rivera realized the fire was no small blaze.
"I saw smoke pouring out of my apartment window," Rivera said.
"That's when I was like, 'Oh, man,' "
Heller said he was grateful that no one was hurt.
"Thank God it was during the day," he said. "There weren't that many people who were there."
The Red Cross set up an evacuation center at Locke School at 46th Street and Haverford Avenue, where residents were given food, coffee, and water. Those worried about missing medications were told to meet with a caseworker who might be able to help.
David C. Schrader, director of communications for the Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of the Red Cross, said residents were being encouraged to find someplace to stay Monday night if they could. Those without anywhere to go would stay on cots at the school.
Schrader said residents should return to the school at 10 a.m. Tuesday to get debit cards they can use for food and other essentials.
Ayers said fire officials would look for pets and try to rescue any animals they found.
West Philadelphia High School and Henry Lea Elementary School will be closed Tuesday because of the five-alarm fire Monday at an apartment building at 48th and Walnut Streets.
"We want to make sure the air quality is OK and that there's no problem [with] the facilities," School District spokeswoman Shana Kemp said.
West Philadelphia High, being used Monday night as a Red Cross emergency shelter, is across 48th from the apartment building. Lea School is at 47th and Locust Streets.
- Staff report
To see a video of the West Philadelphia apartment fire, go to http://go.philly.com/aptfire