Massive Fire Near Philadelphia Leaves 375 People Homeless

Firefighters and investigators began sifting through the charred remains of a raging fire that heavily damaged four apartment buildings and destroyed another under construction, as hundreds of residents waited Thursday to see if anything was left of their homes.

Two occupied apartment buildings at the Riverwalk at Millennium complex along the Schuylkill River suffered severe damage and were largely gutted by the fire. Two others were being evaluated for safety, and some of those residents might be able to return home by the weekend, Conshohocken police Chief James Dougherty said Thursday.

A pair of firefighters suffered minor injuries and were released from hospitals, he said.

The partially completed building where the fire started late Wednesday afternoon was largely wood framing and masonry and "just went up like a match," Conshohocken Mayor Joe Collins said. Concrete stairwells and rubble were all that remained of the structure.

The fierceness of the flames sent embers flying onto the rooftops of the other buildings that caught fire, he said. The affected structures were in compliance with local inspection codes, he added.

Many residents were waiting at the complex Thursday afternoon for permission to return to their apartments as firefighters continued to douse hot spots. The cause was under investigation.

"If they find a crisp laptop I hope they can retrieve the hard drive," said Gary Hunt, 33, an investment fund manager who lived on the top floor of one the buildings that sustained the worst damage.

Hunt said he was having lunch with his brother in Philadelphia when the blaze broke out, and returned home to see the smoke and flames.

Donna Cubbage, a schoolteacher who has lived for three years in one of the less damaged buildings, said she first saw the fire on the news.

"Thank goodness it didn't happen at night," she said.

More than 300 firefighters from a 20-mile area battled the eight-alarm blaze, which snarled rush-hour traffic on nearby Interstate 76 and halted service on a commuter rail line. About 375 people living in 125 units were displaced.

Officials said the location of the complex between the riverfront and railroad tracks made it difficult for firefighters to reach. Heat from the blaze created an atmospheric disturbance visible on TV weather radar.

The $51.8 million Riverwalk at Millennium project is a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom luxury loft apartments built on the once blighted riverfront. The first apartments were rented in May 2005.

Collins, the mayor, said the biggest concern for many residents was their pets.

Kyle Aaron, 29, was driving home with his girlfriend when he saw his building on fire. After he arrived, he could do nothing but watch as the blaze crept closer toward his own apartment — and worry about his dog, an 11-year-old blond Corgi named Elvis.

After hours of anxiety, a firefighter called his cell phone about 3 a.m. — Aaron thinks the number must have been on Elvis' dog tag — with the good news that the animal was fine.

"We could sleep once we got him," Aaron said. "I honestly don't know how they got him. ... You get your loved ones and life goes on."