On the Ground at the Scene of the Fire

February 13, 2016
Frankford Friends School, 1500 Orthodox Street

The fire Saturday morning began in Joe’s Auto Body on Griscom Street.  Joe West, a lifelong Frankford resident and business owner, left his garage to make himself a cup of coffee and when he returned everything had gone up in flames. “Just like that,” he snaps his fingers.

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Photo by Joe Menkevich

Within two hours, the fire had spread throughout the block, overcoming a few row homes, apartments, and store fronts on Frankford Avenue, Orthodox Street, and Griscom Street.

Photo by Joe Menkevich

Photo by Joe Menkevich

At 1 pm the doors of Frankford Friends School opened, thanks to volunteers from the Quaker Meeting, Frankford Friends Meeting.  The gym, initially serving as a gathering location for neighbors in need of coffee or a bathroom, began filling with first responders and Red Cross volunteers.

Throughout the afternoon, families, some with children in pajama pants and puppies in their arms, some shocked into silence with tears of sadness and smoke in their eyes, filtered through the building. Residents and volunteers alike looked through the glass-tile walls in amazement at the sheets of ice forming over front porches, flame-scorched windows, and fire fighters.

The Red Cross emergency responders worked tirelessly to help the ten displaced families into safe and warm spaces for the evening.  Thanks to the kindness of Leandro’s Pizza on Frankford Avenue, four hot pizzas were delivered for the families and responders, some of whom had worked for 6 or 7 hours without rest.

Numerous television crews, frightened neighbors, and political officials large and small came in and out throughout the afternoon. State Representative Jason Dawkins and Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez stopped in to ensure everyone was warm and well fed, as well as 23rd Ward Leader Danny Savage. Even Mayor Jim Kinney stopped in to shake the hands of volunteers and offer his sincere condolences to those in need.

“I keep wanting to pinch myself, like it’s all a dream,” one resident said solemnly. “I think I’m in denial right now, like it’s all going to hit us tonight when we go to sleep.” Behind her, the sun was setting into a striking red and orange sky. The blooms of smoke seemed to have dwindled for a moment.

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Photo by Emma Hohenstein

But as the temperatures dropped and the coffee slowly ran out, pillars of gray smoke began billowing from what looked to be Frankford Avenue. The corner of Griscom and Orthodox Streets was blocked off with police tape and fire engines still spewing ice cold water. Rumors passed around the gym in muffled, sorrowful voices that the fire had consumed numerous storefronts along Frankford Avenue as well as the apartments above.

Photo by Joe Menkevich

Photo by Joe Menkevich

Night fell and families began moving on, locating friends and family to spend the night with, or taking cabs to their Red Cross appointed housing. As the last family helped their dogs into the backseat of their car and the lights in Frankford Friends clicked off, the ever present red and blue strobes could be seen down every side street. Office of Emergency Management workers stood by to direct hungry, cold, and tired police officers to the Frankford Library which has graciously agreed to stay open for 24 hours.

Photo by Emma Hohenstein

Photo by Emma Hohenstein

At 8pm, when this reporter left the scene, the embers and small squalls of flames were still being battled. Even now, 12 hours after the initial blaze, sirens and flashing lights can be noted from blocks away. Thankfully, residents are safe and comfortable for the night. But the fight continues in the hands of the hard-working Philadelphia Fire Department and Police Department.

Photo by Emma Hohenstein

Photo by Emma Hohenstein

Frankford Friends Meeting and the volunteers at the scene this afternoon asked to make public the invitation for all who were affected, who wish to help, or who seek the support of community to attend Quaker Meeting for Worship at 10:30 am this Sunday morning at 1500 Orthodox Street. A collection for displaced families will be taken through the Meeting and those interested can send questions or comments to frankfordmeeting@gmail.com or (215)533-5368 with attention to Frankford Friends Meeting.