A Kensington garage housing 15 classic cars and up to 19 additional vehicles caught fire Wednesday morning, likely damaging all the cars beyond repair, according to a fire department official and the garage owner.
The garage on the 1900 block of East Westmoreland Street had been home to most of the vehicles owned by the Latin Cruisers Car Club since the club was founded in 1991 by Hispanic antique-car enthusiasts, who felt unwelcome in the city's mostly white car clubs, said club president Scott Tennesen. The club kept 18 of its 19 cars in the garage, and 15 were in the building when it caught fire Wednesday. Tennesen estimated their total value at $1 million.
Most of the cars were insured, Tennesen said, but are likely irreplaceable. The vehicles in the building included a 1949 Ford, 1956 Chevrolet truck, 1961 Cadillac, 1961 Ford Falcon, and 1966 Ford Mustang Shelby GT 350.
"You can try to find one that's similar, but you can never replace the time, money, and effort spent on those cars," Tennesen said as he watched firefighters spray water onto the concrete building.
Firefighters responded one minute after several calls came in at 9:28 a.m., Executive Fire Chief Richard Davidson said. It took about 150 firefighters and 22 pieces of equipment to battle the flames. The building was still belching smoke into the air at 10:30 a.m.
One firefighter was hospitalized with minor injuries, and one bystander was hospitalized and listed in stable condition Wednesday afternoon, Davidson said.
Robert Wright, the owner of the garage, said he had heard from rescue workers that the fire started when someone who rents one of the 19 individual garages in the complex was doing bodywork on a car. The garage's rules permit renters only to store their cars there, not to work on them, Wright said. Davidson said the cause of the fire was still under investigation.
Alvin Taveras, who lives near the garage and rents two berths for his cars, said he thought his 1993 Honda Civic hatchback was likely destroyed. He said he had recently spent about $2,000 preparing the car to race at a New Jersey track and had no insurance for it.
"I was always afraid of this," said Jose Rodriguez, another neighborhood resident, who kept his BMW in the garage and had also done work on his car. "My hard work is going down the drain."
Looking at the thick smoke billowing from the building, Wright said, "After I got down here, I got a little emotional." He said he did not know what models of antique cars had been lost in the fire. "All I know is they are old and cool."
The 10 members of the Latin Cruisers - which nowadays includes Hispanic and non-Hispanic car aficionados, and has sister clubs in New York City and Orlando - participate in shows throughout the region and host Wednesday cruise nights at a Chick-fil-A restaurant on Butler Street in Port Richmond, where neighborhood residents could see the club's cars on display.