NORTH COVENTRY — A massive fire ripped through an apartment building on Worth Avenue Thursday evening injuring seven and leaving more than 100 people homeless.
The fire, which required the manpower, equipment and endurance of firefighters from nearly 30 area fire companies, began at 7:20 p.m. according to North Coventry Police.
By the time police and firefighters from Norco Fire Company arrived, the fire had spread throughout the complex with heavy smoke was coming from the building, according to information posted by the police department its Crimewatch page.
The police and firefighters evacuated residents from inside of the building.
Fire departments and several emergency medical service units from Chester, Berks, Montgomery and Delaware counties assisted the Norco Fire Company in fighting the fire.
Fire in North Coventry has required more fire companies than I can count, and the intense heat is taking its toll on the firefighters in their stifling protective gear. pic.twitter.com/R3oAYorI29— Evan Brandt (@PottstownNews) July 31, 2020
Four residents and three firefighters were transported from the scene by Goodwill Ambulance to area hospitals for treatment of unknown injuries sustained during the fire, according to police.
The heat from the blaze was intense and as it tore through the top floor, and then the second floor, the popping and crashing sound of the structure collapsing and falling and crashing through the floor below was unmistakable.
Firefighters fought the blaze primarily from the outside, using tower trucks to pour water onto, and then through, the roof from above while the land attack consisted largely of shooting water through the windows, although there appeared to be problems with pressure.
Two temporary reservoirs were set up at the corner of Tyson and South Keim streets and a steady stream of tankers from as far away as Geigertown, Boyertown, Paoli and Perkiomenville provided a steady stream of water ferried from the firehouse to fill the reservoirs.
Make that a news “chopper,” friggin tiny screens. https://t.co/SMOR9L7vNz— Evan Brandt (@PottstownNews) July 31, 2020
There was an equally steady supply of bottled water for the heat ravaged firefighters.
It took them more than an hour to tame the fast-moving fire, hampered as they were by near sweltering 90-degree heat.
Many had to take breaks and climbed out of their stifling protective coats, pants and boots.
Medics from Goodwill Ambulance and Trappe Fire Ambulance's Limerick Division were on hand to check for heatstroke and other injuries.
The fire continued to smoke and smolder into the night and it was not until about 10 p.m. that some of the fire trucks from further afield began to pull out.
Andrew Dixon lives across the street from the apartments and was amazed at how quickly it grew after he first became aware of it, about 7:30 p.m.
The flames at the North Coventry fire are being tamped down. Smoke is billowing from the roof. Danielle Dixon, who lives across the street says friends lost pets.”I’ve never seen anything so horrible in my life.” pic.twitter.com/hJ23BbXeFd— Evan Brandt (@PottstownNews) July 31, 2020
"It looked like it was in just one apartment on the third floor, just to the left of the main entrance," he said. "There was just flame coming out of that window."
But soon enough, the building was engulfed. Witnesses said the fire appeared to move along the roofline and by 8:15 p.m., the entire roof was gone.
"I've never seen anything so tragic," said Danielle Dixon, who has several friends who lived in the apartments. "I know of at least two friends who lost their animals."
Jim Uphold was worried about his 6-year-old cat Kissy. "She likes to kiss people," he explained.
Jim and Evelyn Uphold lived in their first floor apartment at Ashwood Apartments for 10 years and in the rush to leave, left their cat Kissy behind. Janice Thomas from the Red Cross is helping with relief efforts. pic.twitter.com/zP9zrdTvjU— Evan Brandt (@PottstownNews) July 31, 2020
"The alarm in that place goes off so often I thought it was another false alarm and went to bed," Uphold said. "Then my granddaughter came in said 'poppy, it's a fire we have to go.'"
"I realized as soon as I got out I hadn't grabbed Kissy, but the cop wouldn't let me go back in and get her, even the fire was just on the third floor," he said. "I would have had plenty of time."
Janet Seyler lived in an apartment on the first floor and said she did not realize there was a fire until a "young guy banged on my door and said there was a fire. We just went. It was scary."
She spoke to a reporter at a shelter set up at the Norco Firehouse on Route 724 where firefighter volunteers, the Red Cross and worried neighbors pitched in to give comfort, food, clothing and fellowship.
Seyler, who walks with a cane, was with family but without her medicine.
The apartment residents were transported by buses from the Owen J. Roberts School District to the Norco Fire Company where they were assisted by the American Red Cross.
A volunteer chaplain there, who declined to provide his name, was on the scene to offer what comfort he could.
Asked what he says to those who have lost everything, he replied, "I tell them I'm sorry. I tell them they're in good hands. I tell them they will be taken care of."
Those who fled the Ashwood Apartments fire are at the Norco fire house where the Red Cross and local volunteers are providing food and clothing. And arranging shelter. pic.twitter.com/G1UwvFgPZe— Evan Brandt (@PottstownNews) July 31, 2020
Red Cross worker Elizabeth Stinson moved from table to table, explaining that those who could not stay with family or friends would be put in hotel rooms rather than a large room such as a gymnasium, "because of COVID-19."
The Red Cross put up 23 residents in hotel rooms overnight, according to Sophie Kuthy, regional communications manager for the southeast Pennsylvania office of the American Red Cross.
"Requests for help continue to roll in and we are assisting at least 74 people currently, but the numbers change by the hour," she said Friday afternoon.
"We're here to help every single person who needs it," she said.
Ashwood Apartments is a shell. Investigators, including those from federal Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, are in the scene & it may be some time before a cause is found. Windows are being boarded up & returning residents are in shock. pic.twitter.com/oPDtKuKYbU— Evan Brandt (@PottstownNews) July 31, 2020
Outside the shell of a building Friday, Chester County Fire Marshal John Weer said "it could be days, it could be years" before officials know what started the fire. "We're just getting started."
He confirmed that the apartment building is old enough that it was probably built before current fire safety standards were in effect, requiring things like firewalls and sprinklers.
None of which surprised John DeBoer, who lived in the building for 11 years and was in charge of maintenance for several of them.
"A lot of the wood was rotted, they would never replace stuff when it needed it," he said.
DeBoer was babysitting his grandchildren when the fire struck, but luckily "I decided to do it at my daughter's house in Birdsboro.
She heard about the fire from a friend and called him saying "dinner's cut short dad. Your building is on fire."
An artist who paints portraits and does carving, DeBoer said all his work is lost. "I don't have nothing," he said.
"When I got here, the roof was already on fire," said Angela Drupp, who is unemployed and lived in the ground floor apartment that she added "was the last one to catch fire."
Her 21-year-old son Justin "managed to get a few things out."
Both are staying with Drupp's sister a few miles away.
By 10:30 p.m. the Thursday, the fire hall was being piled high with blankets, pillows, shoes, clothing and toiletries brought by those who had heard about the fire.
By 2 p.m. Friday, an overwhelmed Norco Fire Company had asked people to start making their donations monetary.
"We are NOT accepting goods donations until further notice," was the message posted on the company's Facebook page.
"Item donations have exceeded expectations and the expected needs of the victims involved. The company thanks again all those who have been so generous!" read the post.
"We ARE accepting gift cards and monetary donations. Donations to be directed to "Ashwood Victims."
And donations to be directed to "Norco Fire Company" can be handled through our website norcofire64.com," the post read. "Gift cards/cash/checks for either can be dropped off at the firehouse."
Food is being provided by The Salvation Army and the Coventry Food Pantry is accepting gift cards to help feed the families. Tax-deductible donations tot he pantry can be mailed to 845 S. Hanover St., Pottstown, PA 19465.
Additionally, Hobart's Run, the Pottstown-based neighborhood improvement non-profit has set up a PayPal page to raise money for the victim's needs.
Further, Shelly Buffington set up a GoFundMe page titled "Ashwood apt fire" to collect donations as well.
As of Friday afternoon, it had raised $203 toward its $1,000 goal.