Terriell Lewis and his girlfriend worked for eight years to save $4,800 for the down payment on their first home. Four months after they moved into the rowhouse, a fire destroyed it.

The Louis Street residence was one of about two dozen buildings, some vacant, claimed in Thursday's massive 12-alarm fire in Camden. The blaze exhausted the resources of the city Fire Department, which was assisted by dozens of companies from Camden, Gloucester, and Burlington Counties.

"I grabbed kids. We didn't grab diapers. We didn't grab formula. Just kids," Lewis, 31, said Friday in the lobby of a Quality Inn in Brooklawn, where the Camden County branch of the American Red Cross and the City of Camden housed more than 16 displaced families.

A day after the fire, which authorities believe started in a vacant building rented by the Reliable Tire Co. between 1964 and 1999, neighbors swapped stories about losing everything and tried to figure out what to do next.

Near the fire scene, Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said city officials were setting up a relief fund for those affected. At least 65 people were unable to return home, city officials said.

No deaths or serious injuries occurred during the fire, which broke out about 4:30 p.m. Thursday and was declared under control shortly after 9 p.m. Four firefighters and one civilian were treated for smoke inhalation.

Fire officials continued to try to identify the cause of the fire that virtually leveled two blocks. Officials could not say on Friday if the blaze was suspicious.

The near-100-degree temperature made firefighters' work more difficult, but vandalized hydrants and difficulty finding enough water to fight such an inferno posed more serious problems, said Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper.

Firefighters couldn't hook up to hydrants on Mount Vernon or Louis Streets because vandals had stolen the brass fittings used to connect their hoses, Harper said. Engines drove around in search of usable hydrants.

Fire companies also pumped water from the Cooper River, up to a mile away, Harper said.

"That was a godsend," he said. "It was a considerable amount of time before we could get water to certain areas of the fire."

Union officials said recent layoffs of Camden fire personnel affected the department's response.

"Had this been Jan. 17, before the layoffs, we would have had three more companies in place and 12 more men responding," said Kenny Chambers, the union president for the Camden City firefighters.

Additional manpower may not have changed the outcome, Chambers said, but it would have minimized the damage.

Faced with a city budget crisis, Camden laid off 60 firefighters - nearly a third of its department - on Jan. 18. Redd has since rehired 31 of them. Some of the firefighters who are still out of work responded to the fire on Thursday and helped.

At a news briefing Friday, Harper rejected the assertion that the layoffs had played a role in the response.

The fire "exceeded the capabilities of anything that the Camden Fire Department has ever staffed," he said. "We needed to have additional manpower to address the problems."

Firefighters continued to put out hot spots near the scene on Friday, Harper said. City officials said the building - which has housed no tires since Reliable moved out - is owned by Chestnut Realty in Cherry Hill.

At the Quality Inn, Lewis and his girlfriend, Jameelah Jefferson, 27, were more worried about their four children than themselves.

Jefferson grabbed four "Helping Hands Mickey" stuffed animals, distributed by the Red Cross, to start their new toy collection.

Jefferson, a bank teller, was the first in her family to own her own home. Lewis was the second in his. The couple closed on the property on Feb. 1. It was a rent-to-own arrangement.

"It was a move up, like The Jeffersons," said Lewis, a certified nursing assistant.

They couldn't get homeowners' insurance because their house was sandwiched between two of the abandoned homes that pockmarked the block.

On Thursday, Jefferson and Lewis slept with their 2-week-old son. Their other children slept in another bed.

When their 5-year-old daughter awoke Friday, she asked her parents if the hotel room was the family's new house.

"Our house burned down," said her 4-year-old brother.

Contact staff writer Darran Simon at 856-779-3829 or dsimon@phillynews.com.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.