Developer J. Brian O’Neill dreamed of bringing people back to the banks of the Schuylkill in Conshohocken. And yesterday, they came by the thousands – to watch in horror as his vision went up in flames.
This morning, fire trucks were still on the scene as embers from the buildings smoldered. Firefighters napped on the sidwalks littered with debris and water bottles.
Six riverfront buildings that O’Neill developed, including the Riverwalk at Millennium, were ravaged by an eight-alarm blaze: Three were destroyed, three damaged.
More than 300 firefighters from all corners of Montgomery County battled the spectacular fire, which raged for about six hours before crews got the upper hand about 10:30 p.m. Even so, firefighters were to remain overnight to douse hot spots.
From emergency workers to newly homeless residents, few could grasp how swiftly the flames turned a redevelopment showpiece with a clubhouse and courtyard into a smoldering disaster zone. At least 125 apartment units, housing 375 people, were destroyed.
The blaze began in a five-story building under construction at 203 Washington St. called the Stables at Millennium and spread quickly across what one official called a “lumberyard.”
The description was apt. The building was in the framing stage, which involves putting together the bones of the structure out of kiln-dried two-by-fours, plywood and lumber, materials that can burn very quickly.
Montgomery County Sheriff John Durante, who is also a longtime volunteer firefighter, said he had arrived on the scene soon after the fire was reported. “I’ve never seen a fire this intense burn so fast,” he said last night.
He figured that the blaze began in the end of the building closest to the river and spread to the front – about 100 yards – in 15 minutes.
At the height of the fire, flames encompassed the entire structure and were as tall as the building itself. They radiated so much heat that the roofs of adjacent buildings caught.
The cause of the fire – which began about 4:30 p.m. – was unknown.
“Jobs like this just beat everyone up,” said Leo Costello, an assistant fire chief in Conshohocken who was catching his breath late last night. He had been on the scene since about 5.
Riverfront fires are among the most challenging because of the difficulty in routing enough water into the area, fire officials said.
Embers and flames jumped from the Stables to adjacent apartment buildings in the Riverwalk complex, said Tom Sullivan, Montgomery County public safety director. The attics of those buildings caught fire, which “enabled the fire to get around the fire walls,” he said.
One firefighter who suffered from smoke inhalation and a young woman who collapsed were taken to Chestnut Hill Hospital.
Because the buildings border the river and railroad track, “access is challenged,” Sullivan said. “They’re working through it, and have been cutting down fencing.”
Sullivan said the borough had a limited water supply, which it was trying to overcome with supplies from other fire companies and lots of hose. “They’re making very good progress,” he said.
He noted that the fire was in what used to be an industrial area with limited firefighting infrastructure.
Ten fire companies responded.
Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, who could see the smoke from his home in Roxborough, said this type of riverfront fire was particularly difficult to tackle.
In Philadelphia, water mains dead-end at the river, and hydrants at waterfront locations tend to have lower water pressure, he said.
“It’s a very challenging firefighting moment,” Ayers said. “They’re up against the size of the fire . . . and getting water resources together to get in front of the fire.” The Philadelphia Fire Department was not called to the scene.
West Coast 911 firefighting news source – The Philadelphia Inquirer