As West Chester fire raged, a heroic effort from neighbors
As the Barclay Friends assisted living home burned, dozens of people from surrounding homes in the West Chester neighborhood spent hours moving elderly residents away from the building, lifting wheelchairs over large fire hoses, and wrapping the evacuees - many of them barefoot - in blankets.
Boom. It almost sounded like a car accident. Ed Costa of West Chester, just out of the shower and preparing for bed at 10:45 p.m., went to his second-story bedroom window. He saw an orange glow, then realized there were flames shooting up from the nursing home across the street.
He threw on a t-shirt and shorts and rushed outside into the cold and wind, leaving his wife and one-year-old daughter asleep. He crossed Goshen Road and ran up the hill from the north, one of the first to join what became a massive effort to evacuate more than 200 residents from the Barclay Friends Senior Living facility as a five-alarm fire raged at the complex.
Along with first responders, dozens of people from surrounding homes spent hours Thursday night and early Friday morning moving elderly residents away from the burning building, lifting wheelchairs over large fire hoses, and wrapping the evacuees — many of them barefoot — in blankets.
"Neighbors played … definitely a crucial part, I would say," Costa said. "It's a fine line between helping and being in the way in a situation like that, but help was definitely needed for the residents."
When Costa, 31, got to the building on Franklin Street about 11 p.m., he was astonished by how many residents were already out of the building. More were coming out in a steady stream. He, along with others, jumped in to help get the seniors down the long driveway.
Then "I kind of stopped for a second and reality struck that it's like 100 old, sick people, and they're all shaking because it's 40 degrees out," Costa said. "I went home… and I grabbed every blanket that I could find."
Embers swept over the street, flames ravaged the roof, and fire trucks circled as the elderly waited to be taken to hospitals or emergency shelters. By Friday morning, the Red Cross shelter at West Chester University was closed and all evacuees had moved to other facilities or been taken by relatives.
At day's end, officials said they were still trying to account for people but did not say how many. They reported 27 injured, with 17 remaining hospitalized.
"Our residents, our neighbors …. I'm very proud of how our community has come together during this tragedy," said West Chester Mayor Jordan Norley at an afternoon press conference.
To the west of Barclay Friends, up a hill where her children used to sled next to the facility, and across Matlack Street, Sandy DePhillips heard her mother call out from the dining room about 11 p.m. DePhillips, 56, went to the window and saw fire above the trees, not a quarter mile away.
"This is terrible!" DePhillips recalled shouting as she ran to put on clothes and shoes. "This is terrible!"
She gathered blankets and ran across the street and down the hill. She could see flames spreading rapidly across the building's roof. She thought of how many elderly people were inside.
The scene was a sea of wheelchairs. Evacuees rested bare feet on freezing asphalt. They wore whatever they had been sleeping in. DePhillips joined the fray. She put shoes on a woman, wrapped another who was wearing only a bathrobe.
"People from all over the neighborhood came out with blankets, came out with water, were giving people hugs," she said, estimating 20 or 30 neighbors were on the street. "Everybody was helping them [to] make them feel as comfortable as possible."
As Costa ran back to his house for supplies, he saw his neighbors on the street.
"Barclay Friends is on fire; we need blankets and warmth," he shouted.
The families listened. Harry Cepis, his wife, and their 16-year-old daughter were among those who gathered blankets and made for the site.
"We just helped wrapping everybody in blankets, trying to keep them warm," Cepis said. "I was surprised at how calm they were… The biggest complaint was 'I'm cold.' "
Two carts of towels and sheets had been brought out of Barclay Friends, Costa said. The neighborhood workers grabbed stacks. Costa remembered wrapping feet, wrapping heads to keep the wind off, then draping blankets. He brought about 15 from his home in total —comforters, throws, coats, even moving blankets.
The neighbors in the street began moving people away from the building, carrying and wheeling the evacuees up the street, where they formed a line to await emergency vehicles.
But, neighbors said, the elderly residents were calm. "Honey, I'm fine," one told Costa, then expressed concern for others. "Maybe he's cold."
The helpers lifted wheelchairs over the large fire hoses crisscrossing the asphalt. They pulled blankets up to cover the residents' noses in the smoky air. They tried not to get the blankets caught in the wheelchairs as they pushed.
"It was an incredible response from our neighbors. There were so many people there," Cepis said. He choked up thinking about it. "I've never experienced anything that needed the help like this."
Added Costa, "It was pretty remarkable."
Ambulances took evacuees; a school bus was loaded with many of the people who could walk. Some who couldn't were lifted in through the back on stretchers by emergency responders.
It was about 1:30 in the morning and Costa, still wearing short sleeves and shorts, was exhausted. With so many people there helping and only about 30 people left waiting for transportation, he said, he decided to go home. He had been filled with dread since he'd seen the flames, and he tried to ask a nurse if everyone was accounted for, then went back to his house and hoped to sleep.
As 2 a.m. neared, it seemed like a long time that DePhillips and Cipa had been waiting with different groups for vehicles.
DePhillips had stuck with a group of women and retrieved her cell phone from home so they could call their families.
"We just did whatever we could do to keep people [having] a sense of comfort and a sense that they were going to be OK."
Cepis' group was among the last to leave. His daughter took charge of a man's wheelchair, his wife chatted with one woman, and Cepis tended to another. Friday's sun would dawn in a few short hours. Water continued to arc from cranes onto the smoldering building.
Cepis and his family saw their charges onto a vehicle. Then they walked home.
"It was a long night," they agreed as they left, Cepis recalled. "But it felt good to help."
Staff writers Erin McCarthy and Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.