Camden Fire Department
The Fires of June & July, 2011
June 9, 2011 - The Reliable Tire Co. Building Fire


After budget cuts brought on in great part by poor leadership at the state level from both political parties under Governors Whitman, McGreevey, Codey, and Corzine the City of Camden laid of a large number of its professional fire department, effective January 17, 2011. Former Chief David A. Yates had offered three plans on how to cope with the situation, all were rejected by parties at Camden's City Hall, and a plan for the Fire Department, which to date I have not been able to find out who authored, was handed back to the Chief. Chief Yates subsequently chose to retire, and Chief Michael Harper was appointed as his replacement. Chief Harper inherited a no-win situation, and the losses began almost immediately. With Fire companies closed in different parts of the city, response times to fire calls increased, homes that could have been saved were destroyed, and civilians injured. 

On June 6, 2011 a vacant two-story twin at 821-823 of Chestnut Street was destroyed by fire. Three days later, on June 9, fire broke out in the abandoned warehouse on Chestnut Street that formerly housed the Reliable Tire Company. When the few available local units arrived on the scene, hydrants were found to have been vandalized, delaying efforts to extinguish the blaze, which soon went to 12 alarms. Units were called in from surrounding communities, obviously taking a great deal of time to arrive on scene. In the mean time, high winds caused the fire to spread to adjacent buildings that formerly were occupied by the Camden Pottery Company (last a division of the Universal Rundle Corporation), and homes on Orchard, Louis, and Mount Vernon Streets. Ten occupied homes were completely destroyed, as were all the industrial buildings, and thirteen other homes on Chestnut Street were badly damaged by smoke and water. Conditions and results of this blaze mimicked in almost every way the Poet's Row fire of August, 1972 where a vacant leather factory once occupied by the John R. Evans & Company caught fire and two and one-half full city blocks of homes on Byron, Burns, and Milton Streets were completely and utterly destroyed.... a deadly combination of an old and abandoned industrial building, short-staffed fire department, low water pressure and high winds being among the contributing factors.

As with the web page covering other Camden Fire Department events, if you can identify anyone that I've missed, please e-mail me. (I'm terrible at at names and faces).

Phil Cohen
July 3, 2011

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The "Reliable Tire building" fire of June 9, 2011
Camden Courier-Post - June 10, 2011

Fire at the "Reliable Tire" building, 1115 Chestnut Street, as seen from Louis Street and Chestnut Street - Photo by Ted Aurig

Sanborn Map of the affected area
Map last updated in 1962
Reliable Tire Company occupied Camden Pottery (Universal Rundle) buildings in 1964
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Satellite Image, April 11, 2010
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The "Reliable Tire building" fire of June 9, 2011

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Destroyed by Fire on June 6, 2011

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Click Here for Video Camden, NJ 12 Alarm Fire

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Camden, NJ 12th Alarm Fire
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Camden, NJ 12th Alarm Fire
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Camden, NJ 12th Alarm Fire
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Camden Courier-Post - June 10, 2011

Camden Courier-Post - June 10, 2011

Massive fire destroys warehouse, ten houses in Camden

Written by

GEORGE MAST and LUCAS K. MURRAY

CAMDEN  One of the largest fires in Camden's recent history roared through several blocks in the city's Gateway section Thursday, destroying an abandoned tire warehouse and damaging nearly a dozen homes on neighboring blocks.

As dusk turned to darkness, more than five hours after the 12-alarm inferno broke out, blocks of brick buildings had been reduced to smoking rubble with flames still flickering. A burned-out van smoldered and flames licked at the tops of electric poles as well as a tree stump in a neighboring graveyard.

The blocks bounded by Mount Vernon Street, Mount Ephraim Avenue, Chestnut Street and Louis Street looked like a war zone.

"This is pretty bad," said Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper. "It just started spreading all over the place."

Harper said firefighters struggled to find enough water sources to cover the engulfed area. At times, they sat for as long as 10 minutes waiting for water hoses strung throughout the area to receive pressure.

Fire officials couldn't begin to tally the total damage done by Thursday night but estimated 10 homes had been destroyed and at least 20 residents displaced. Several of the homes were vacant. There was no word on what caused the fire.

No residents were reported injured but at least one fire captain was treated at a local hospital for heat exhaustion.

Calls for a three-story structure fire went out over city police radio around 4 p.m. The initial broadcast was for an abandoned apartment building, fully engulfed in flames, but responders soon arrived on the scene to find an abandoned tire distributor.

The old Reliable Tire building, abandoned for more than a decade, is just off Mount Ephraim Avenue, between Chestnut and Mount Vernon streets.

As firefighters struggled in record high temperatures to get water to all corners of the massive building, flames soon spread to homes on Mount Vernon, Orchard and Louis streets.

Black, choking smoke hung like a fog for blocks and rained down sparks and debris as firefighters from as far as Gloucester and Burlington counties were called in for At the height of the blaze, all service was disrupted on the PATCO Hi-Speedline.

Hundreds of residents gathered on all sides of the advancing flames to form a sea of spectators, some coming from the suburbs.

"It's getting ready to be a disaster," Shakirah Battie said, watching as flames began shooting from the windows of homes on Louis Street.

Hector Lopez was among a group of residents along Chestnut Street watching in fear as flames towered over the top of the warehouse and leaned in the wind toward the roofs of a string of row homes.

"I'm heartbroken," the 27-year-old said. "(Those are) childhood memories."

Lopez was among witnesses who questioned whether the situation would have been different had the city not laid off more than 60 firefighters earlier this year.

"All those firefighters that they laid off, this is the reason that we need them," he said.

Hours later, even after flames from the warehouse had been knocked down, Lopez wasn't sure of the state of his house, which had also been surrounded by flames in the back.

As late as 5 p.m., a resident three homes down from where the blaze roared was out in her bare feet attempting to extinguish small fires along her sidewalk with water from a small pan. Within minutes, flames spread down her block, sending her and dozens of onlookers scrambling to escape rolling black smoke. The outside of Bundy's Joker's Wild Lounge on Haddon Avenue became a makeshift triage center for responders overcome by heat and smoke.

To call the fire's aftermath "surreal" would be an understatement. On Haddon Avenue at around 8 p.m., a thin haze of smoke hung over the roadway hours after the fire started.

Water cannons from firetrucks shot into the tall, unkempt grass of the Old Camden Cemetery to douse small brush fires sparked by flying cinders.

Emergency lights from the dozens of ambulances, police cars and fire trucks that remained cut through the smoke and water, making for an eerie light show. That and the surrounding darkness largely masked the devastation, apparent only when seen up close at the fireground.

A burning pick-up truck remained on Mount Vernon Street as a ladder truck from Oaklyn worked to cool off hot spots. Walls of old row homes continued to collapse, their mortar giving way from the intense heat that gutted them earlier.

Orchard Street was nothing more than a yard of glowing bricks.

The collapsed roof of the block-long main warehouse looked like a massive charcoal grill.

Earlier in the evening, Deputy Chief Greg Murphy said propane tanks next to a nearby home had exploded in the fire. He was one of the first firefighters on the scene.

Murphy said it was as bad a fire as he has ever seen in the city.

As if the situation couldn't get any stranger, a quick-moving thunderstorm with a dramatic lightning display poured down. Firefighters taking a rest sought refuge underneath large open doors that protect the equipment on their trucks.

"Right now our main concern is the safety of the residents and of the firefighters," City Spokesman Robert Corrales said.

"We opened up one of our community centers and as firefighters rotate out, we bring them there to cool off. We're also bringing in displaced families, getting their information and connecting them with the Red Cross."

City officials maintained water pressure was not an issue in fighting Thursday's fire.

Seven families -- a total of 26 people -- were displaced as a result of the fire according to Camy Trinidad, executive director of the Camden County American Red Cross. They were evacuated to a shelter elsewhere in the city and later transferred to area hotels.

"We'll have further assessment of their homes going forward," Trinidad said. "Some don't know how bad the fire was."

The families were given gift cards for restaurants and clothing stores -- temporary assistance for some who lost everything.

"It's bad," Trinidad said.

"We went from being in standby at 5:30 for possible evacuations to having an entire neighborhood go up. It's just a terrible situation."

Reach George Mast at (856) 486-2465 atgmast@camden.gannett.com


Camden Courier-Post - June 10, 2011


Camden Courier-Post - June 10, 2011

Responders cope with blazing heat
Written by
JIM WALSH and GEORGE MAST  

Fred Vilardo was about to enjoy a plate of pasta in his air-conditioned home in Mount Ephraim Thursday afternoon.

Then the volunteer firefighter got the word a monster blaze was burning in Camden's Gateway neighborhood -- and suburban fire companies were needed to battle it.

Vilardo, like scores of firefighters from Camden and its outlying communities, soon found himself in a hellish landscape.

The fire rampaged, jumping across narrow streets to torch building after building. Smoke billowed from multiple sites on several different blocks.

And thanks to Mother Nature, the temperature hit a record high of 99 degrees at 3:45 p.m., shortly before the fire was reported.

"You don't think about it. You just do it," a visibly weary Vilardo said around 6 p.m. Thursday at a fire scene in the 1100 block of Louis Street.

He had just returned from a rehab station for firefighters -- several rows of folding chairs set up in a traffic lane on nearby Haddon Avenue. Firemen there slumped in front of a fan, wet towels over their heads and water bottles in their hands.

"The heat is beating them up," Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper said of responders who fought the flames into the night.

"It's unbelievable," said Al Ashley, president of the Camden firefighter's superior officer's union. "You have to have a lot of fluids in you and you have to be in good shape."

Officials reported at least one injury, a fire captain who was treated for heat exhaustion at a city hospital.

The inferno drew emergency responders from towns that included Bellmawr and Haddonfield, Cherry Hill and Magnolia, Winslow and West Deptford. They fought their way through rush-hour traffic to reach the city, then passed hundreds of residents gawking from sidewalks and porches along city streets.

Once they arrived, firefighters were challenged by strong winds that helped spread burning embers, as well as the need to shift positions in the face of the spreading flames, said Camden Assistant Chief Fire Marshal Braulio Villegas.

"I had to move our firetruck twice," said Vilardo, a 61-year-old maintenance worker at Audubon High School.

He said firefighters faced smoky conditions throughout the burning area, but particularly near the starting point, a former tire warehouse.

"The smoke rises, so you have to keep low," Vilardo explained, as several firefighters down the street knelt to spray water at an abandoned house.

"You have to fight the fire in the empty buildings to try to keep it away from the occupied ones."

That strategy paid off for Sean Richardson, who saw firefighters stop the blaze across the street from his Louis Street home.

"For a while they didn't think they'd be able to stop it," said the 43-year-old city resident. "They did the best they could."

Mayor Dana Redd praised firefighters from the city and suburbs shortly before she assessed the scene around 9 p.m.

"All of the firefighters did a yeoman's job," she said.

"They were great."

Reach Jim Walsh at (856) 486-2646 or jwalsh@gannett.com.


Camden Courier-Post - June 10, 2011

As temperatures near 100 degrees, firefighters catch their breath during the battle against a fire that began in a vacant Camden warehouse. 
CHRIS LaCHALL/Courier-Post  


Philadelphia Inquirer - June 10, 2011

12-alarm fire engulfs former tire distributorship in Camden
By Claudia Vargas
Inquirer Staff Writer

Firefighters from throughout South Jersey battled a massive 12-alarm blaze Thursday at a former tire-distribution facility in Camden.  

Just after 8 p.m., as storms rolled into the area, fire officials said the blaze had been contained. It was declared under control shortly after 9 p.m. At least three firefighters were hospitalized for heat exhaustion.  

The fire engulfed vacant buildings formerly used by Reliable Tire Distributors and the Board of Education in the area of Orchard Street and Mount Ephraim Avenue in Camden's Parkside neighborhood.

[Friday morning, neighboring sections of Chestnut Street and Mount Ephraim Avenue were still closed to traffic, and investigators were at the scene.]

The fire erupted around 4:30 p.m., city spokesman Robert Corrales said. Less than two hours later, fire officials struck a 12th alarm. Dark smoke could be seen for miles as flames spread to neighboring vacant homes.

"It was like a firestorm," Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper said.

Eleven displaced families were being aided by the Red Cross, Harper said. Several other families made their own arrangements for the night.

The cause of the blaze was under investigation.

Reliable Tire Distributors moved to Gloucester Township around 1999. A member of the Betz family, which had owned the company, declined to comment on the fire and referred a reporter to a lawyer who could not be reached.

The abandoned buildings had become a nuisance, attracting thieves and vandals, said Richard Gaines, who lives above the three small businesses he owns on Haddon Avenue and Mount Vernon Street.

"They took out pipes and copper, anything they could find," he said.

The blistering afternoon heat and wind caused the fire to spread quickly, said Al Ashley, president of the union that represents superior officers in the Camden Fire Department.

"I've been here 24 years and . . . I've never seen anything like that," he said.

Firefighters also struggled because they did not have enough engine companies to provide water, Ashley said.

"A lot of hydrants are on the same grid, so now we're [also] dealing with water pressure," he said, holding a walkie-talkie on Sycamore Street, where firefighters were pulling boards from closed-up vacant homes in case the fire spread further.

Hector Lopez, 28, was sitting on his couch watching television when he smelled smoke and called 911. He said he and his family left the house and saw smoke coming from the vacant Board of Education building next door.  

Flames started to shoot from the old tire building two doors down, and "then it went everywhere," Lopez said.  

A PSE&G spokesperson said fire damage to wiring and poles caused the outage.

The Red Cross also confirmed it is now assisting 55 displaced residents, including more than 20 children.

Meanwhile, Gloucester Township-based Reliable Tire Company issued a statement today saying the media had incorrectly referred to the building that caught fire and spread to neighboring homes.

Reliable says it merely leased the space from 1964 to 1999 but did not own it.

"It is incorrect to refer to the building as The Reliable Tire Building," the statement said. "It is a misleading nickname and not legally accurate."

On June 16, 1999, Reliable Tire Company left the building as a tenant, leaving their space in broom-clean condition - clear of all inventory and equipment."


Camden Courier-Post - June 10, 2011


Camden Courier-Post - June 10, 2011

Chief: Damaged hydrants hampered fighting Camden fire
by Geoff Mulvihill

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper on Friday morning walked the perimeter of two blocks that were largely leveled by a fire a day earlier, taking pictures with his cell phone.  

In case anyone asked later, he wanted documentation of some of the obstacles beyond temperature near 100 degrees that hampered his depleted department's ability to battle the fire.  

He photographed a fire hydrant a block away from the hottest part of the fire. Like two others nearby, the brass threadings used to connect hoses had been stolen, leaving the hydrants unusable and delaying the ability to begin the firefight in the crucial early moments after firefighters arrived Thursday afternoon.

Unable to take water from a nearby hydrant, he said, it took six engine companies to pump water several blocks from the Cooper River.

As they got water, the chief said, crews watched buildings that looked like they could have been saved catch fire.

"When you don't get no water, you can't do anything," said Harper, a longtime firefighter who became chief in January.

The fire was devastating, burning at least parts of about 23 buildings, leaving at least 20 people without homes and dozens more at least temporarily without electricity and contending with smoke damage.

Harper said three firefighters and one civilian were hospitalized, all for smoke inhalation. None had life-threatening injuries.

Harper said it might take weeks to determine what sparked the fire, which is believed to have started in the long-vacant building that was formerly home to the Reliable Tire Co.

Like much of Camden, a city that consistently ranks as one of the nation's most impoverished, the corner of the Parkside neighborhood where the fire broke out is a hodge-podge of businesses and homes, some vacant and some occupied.

The water wasn't the only challenge.

In January, the city, facing a deep fiscal crisis, laid off about one-third of its firefighters. Several have been hired back. But Harper said the smaller force means that reinforcements from elsewhere have to be brought in sooner.

And that's difficult, he said, because they don't know the lay of the land in a city that's so different from its suburbs.

Crews had to rest frequently because of the heat of the day, the hottest since July.

The thick plume of smoke meant the PATCO trains that take commuters from southern New Jersey to jobs in Philadelphia had to be shut down during the evening rush hour. Trains resumed by 7 p.m.

Around 8 p.m., there was a new environmental problem: a thunderstorm.

While the rain was welcomed as an aid, the lightning wasn't. Ladders positioned to fight the fire from above had to be lowered for fear they'd be struck.

By the time the fire was under control later Thursday night, power transformers had melted, some propane tanks burst, several homes were reduced to rubble and a van was left charred almost beyond recognition.

Harper said embers fell throughout the neighborhood, igniting a fire on a porch more than a block from the fire.

A building across the street full of wood pallets and sawdust was kept from burning.

On Friday, demolition crews were knocking down the remaining unstable walls of the tire building, in the hopes that investigators could soon get to the area where the fire is thought to have started. Crews from the electric company PSEG were assessing how they might be able to restore power.  

And Walter Nokes, who lives a block from the fire, said he had to keep his daughter home from school. All her clothes smelled of smoke, he said.

One tidy house on one of the devastated blocks appeared untouched by the fire.  

"That house," Chief Harper said as he looked at it, "is blessed."  


Camden Courier-Post - June 10, 2011


Camden Courier-Post - June 10, 2011

Power outages remain; Red Cross assisting Camden fire victims

CAMDEN -- About 128 buildings in Camden remain without power after Thursday's 12-alarm blaze in the city's Gateway section.

A PSE&G spokesperson said fire damage to wiring and poles caused the outage.

The Red Cross also confirmed it is now assisting 55 displaced residents, including more than 20 children.  

Meanwhile, Gloucester Township-based Reliable Tire Company issued a statement today saying the media had incorrectly referred to the building that caught fire and spread to neighboring homes.

Reliable says it merely leased the space from 1964 to 1999 but did not own it.

"It is incorrect to refer to the building as The Reliable Tire Building," the statement said. "It is a misleading nickname and not legally accurate."

On June 16, 1999, Reliable Tire Company left the building as a tenant, leaving their space in broom-clean condition - clear of all inventory and equipment."


Camden Courier-Post - June 10, 2011


Philadelphia Inquirer - June 11, 2011

Camden fire destroyed 23 buildings, displaced more than 16 families

By Darran Simon
Inquirer Staff Writer

Terriell Lewis and his girlfriend worked for eight years to save $4,800 for the down payment on their first home. Four months after they moved into the rowhouse, a fire destroyed it.

The Louis Street residence was one of about two dozen buildings, some vacant, claimed in Thursday's massive 12-alarm fire in Camden. The blaze exhausted the resources of the city Fire Department, which was assisted by dozens of companies from Camden, Gloucester, and Burlington Counties.

"I grabbed kids. We didn't grab diapers. We didn't grab formula. Just kids," Lewis, 31, said Friday in the lobby of a Quality Inn in Brooklawn, where the Camden County branch of the American Red Cross and the City of Camden housed more than 16 displaced families.

A day after the fire, which authorities believe started in a vacant building rented by the Reliable Tire Co. between 1964 and 1999, neighbors swapped stories about losing everything and tried to figure out what to do next.

Near the fire scene, Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said city officials were setting up a relief fund for those affected. At least 65 people were unable to return home, city officials said.

No deaths or serious injuries occurred during the fire, which broke out about 4:30 p.m. Thursday and was declared under control shortly after 9 p.m. Four firefighters and one civilian were treated for smoke inhalation.

Fire officials continued to try to identify the cause of the fire that virtually leveled two blocks. Officials could not say on Friday if the blaze was suspicious.

The near-100-degree temperature made firefighters' work more difficult, but vandalized hydrants and difficulty finding enough water to fight such an inferno posed more serious problems, said Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper.

Firefighters couldn't hook up to hydrants on Mount Vernon or Louis Streets because vandals had stolen the brass fittings used to connect their hoses, Harper said. Engines drove around in search of usable hydrants.

Fire companies also pumped water from the Cooper River, up to a mile away, Harper said.

"That was a godsend," he said. "It was a considerable amount of time before we could get water to certain areas of the fire."

Union officials said recent layoffs of Camden fire personnel affected the department's response.

"Had this been January 17, before the layoffs, we would have had three more companies in place and 12 more men responding," said Kenny Chambers, the union president for the Camden City firefighters.

Additional manpower may not have changed the outcome, Chambers said, but it would have minimized the damage.

Faced with a city budget crisis, Camden laid off 60 firefighters - nearly a third of its department - on Jan. 18. Redd has since rehired 31 of them. Some of the firefighters who are still out of work responded to the fire on Thursday and helped.

At a news briefing Friday, Harper rejected the assertion that the layoffs had played a role in the response.

The fire "exceeded the capabilities of anything that the Camden Fire Department has ever staffed," he said. "We needed to have additional manpower to address the problems."

Firefighters continued to put out hot spots near the scene on Friday, Harper said. City officials said the building - which has housed no tires since Reliable moved out - is owned by Chestnut Realty in Cherry Hill.

At the Quality Inn, Lewis and his girlfriend, Jameelah Jefferson, 27, were more worried about their four children than themselves.

Jefferson grabbed four "Helping Hands Mickey" stuffed animals, distributed by the Red Cross, to start their new toy collection.

Jefferson, a bank teller, was the first in her family to own her own home. Lewis was the second in his. The couple closed on the property on February 1. It was a rent-to-own arrangement.

"It was a move up, like The Jeffersons," said Lewis, a certified nursing assistant.

They couldn't get homeowners' insurance because their house was sandwiched between two of the abandoned homes that pockmarked the block.

On Thursday, Jefferson and Lewis slept with their 2-week-old son. Their other children slept in another bed.

When their 5-year-old daughter awoke Friday, she asked her parents if the hotel room was the family's new house.

"Our house burned down," said her 4-year-old brother.

PHOTOS BY JOEL D. BAIN
Click on Images for Enlarged and High Resolution Views


PHOTOS BY JOEL D. BAIN
Click on Images for Enlarged and High Resolution Views

Chestnut Street  
Louis Street 1156 to 1150 Mt. Vernon Street
1156 to 1150 Mt. Vernon Street 1156 to 1150 Mt. Vernon Street
1156 to 1150 Mt. Vernon Street 1154 Mt. Vernon Street
1152 Mt. Vernon Street  

The Day After - June 10, 2011
Click on Images to Enlarge

Looking South on Orchard Street from Mt. Vernon Street
Looking East Mt. Vernon Street from Louis Street

The Day After - June 10, 2011
Photos of a few Camden Fire Fighters still on the fire grounds the following day
Engine Company 1

Firefighters
Nieves & Velez,
Captain Daniel Payne

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to Enlarge


Captain Daniel Payne
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Deputy Chief
Greg Murphy
&
Fire Marshall
Munoz

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to Enlarge

 


Deputy Chief Greg Murphy
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Deputy Chief Greg Murphy & Fire Marshall Munoz
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Captain Angel Molina - Firefighter Nieves
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Firefighters Nieves & Velez
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Firefighters Velez & Reese
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Firefighters Velez & Larry Reese
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Philadelphia Inquirer - June 11, 2011

Dennis Missouri and his dog, Cash, walk away Friday from the fire-damaged rubble which was his home 16 years ago along Louis Street in Camden.
(Jarid Barringer / Staff Photographer


Philadelphia Inquirer - June 11, 2011

Mayor Dana L. Redd leaving a news briefing Friday at the fire scene. Officials were seeking the cause of the blaze.


Camden Courier-Post * June 11, 2011

Camden Warehouse Owner Is Delinquent On Taxes

Written by

BARBARA S. ROTHSCHILD

CAMDEN  A realty firm delinquent in its taxes owns the warehouse destroyed in a 12-alarm Camden fire Thursday, a city official confirmed Friday.

City property tax records list Chestnut Realty Association, which has a post office box in Cherry Hill, as the property owner since 1968. The amount of its tax arrearage was not available Friday and the real estate firm could not be reached for comment.

City attorney Marc Riondino said the property is owned by the realty company and is tax delinquent, but did not provide any details.

"We will be in contact with the owners," he said. He also said Chestnut Realty was cited by the city for having tires on the property in 2006, but hasn't been cited since.

Staff in the tax collector's office said there was a tax lien sale for the property and that the lien was purchased by XPAND, a tax lien service that tries to recoup tax money for governments by working out a payment plan with landowners.

The tax office referred all lien questions to XPAND, but efforts to reach its corporate office in Whippany were unsuccessful.

The last major tenant at the industrially zoned warehouse property on Orchard and Chestnut streets in South Camden was Reliable Tire Co., a tire distribution business now headquartered in Gloucester Township.

"The building that burned yesterday in the tragic fire in Camden has been falsely linked to the Reliable Tire Company," the company said in a statement from its lawyer, Hugh Braithwaithe.

"In fact, the company never owned the building and only rented space as a tenant from 1964 to 1999."

The company said in June, 1999 it left the building in "broom-clean" condition and clear of inventory and equipment.

When Reliable moved into the former Clover department store in Gloucester Township it received a tax abatement from the township as a relocation incentive, company executive Joe Thomas told the Courier-Post in 2001..


Camden Courier-Post * June 12, 2011

Camden blaze aftermath: Homes just
a pile of rubble after another

Written by
LUCAS K. MURRAY

CAMDEN  It was a long, slow walk up Louis Street for Terriell Lewis and Jameelah Jefferson on Friday morning.

Their home, on which they made settlement in February, was one of about a dozen that burned Thursday during a massive 12-alarm fire in the city's Gateway section.

"It's like it picked and choosed which homes it took," said Jefferson, a mother of four, including a 2-week-old, of the wind-whipped flames.

"Ours was the first home on the block to go. My mom went back in the house to get the dog and when she came back out, the flames followed her."

Officials from city, county, state and federal agencies converged at the site of Thursday's inferno, a block-long abandoned warehouse and several homes near Orchard and Chestnut streets.

So far, officials have not determined the cause of the blaze that necessitated assistance from 59 South Jersey fire companies.

Fire Chief Michael Harper said city fire crews would remain on the scene throughout the weekend, dousing hot spots.

As crews from local demolition crews pushed piles of bricks and debris, smoldering material sent small puffs of smoke into the air.

When Lewis and Jefferson went back Friday, all that remained was rubble, unsalvageable personal items and memories. The televisions, electronics, baby clothes, pictures of their young kids -- ages 5, 4, 2 and 2 weeks -- were all gone.

"We'll get it back, it just takes time," Lewis said, still wearing the scrubs he wore to work as a certified nurse assistant.

They find themselves this weekend with hardly any possessions and an unknown future. The pair didn't have homeowners insurance.

"No one would cover us because there were too many abandoned buildings close together," Lewis explained.

"When they came out to take the pictures, they told us they couldn't cover it."

"We even fixed up the houses next to us hoping that it'd look like someone actually lived there in hopes we'd get it," Jefferson added.

For now, they're one of 13 families receiving assistance following the fire. A total of 55 people, including 25 children, are staying in local hotels.

Camy Trinidad, executive director of the Camden County Red Cross, said the situation has been a trying one for both the families and the agency because more and more people in need have come forward since the fire.

"For us it's been a moving number and a challenge in making sure everyone has a room, out of the elements, which we have done," Trinidad said.

The goal is to make sure people aren't left homeless. Camden Mayor Dana Redd said the Camden School District is working with the 25 displaced children to get them back into their classrooms, providing them with uniforms and school supplies.

The plan currently is to have the residents remain in local hotels through part of the weekend. Redd noted the city has some temporary housing units in which it can house the families.

Early Friday morning, some scavengers were seen picking through the debris of the destroyed homes in hopes of finding scrap metal from fixtures and wires to sell.

Ironically, the practice of scrapping may have contributed to the demise of the homes, since metal was stolen from several area fire hydrants.

Lewis and Jefferson were outside their burning home when firefighters popped the hydrant a few yards from their front door.

All that came out was rusty, brown water. The water source proved to be useless for firefighters because thieves had previously made off with the brass threads from the steamer portion of the hydrant where hoses are attached.

Through the chaos Thursday night, some Camden residents took it upon themselves to lend a hand.

One older man shuffled down Haddon Avenue with a small thermos and a stack of paper cups. It was barely enough water to quench one firefighter's thirst in the 98-degree heat, but the thought alone was well-received by those sitting outside Bundy's Joker's Wild seeking refuge from the fire.

Pastor Sarah Bethea wasn't sure what she would find when she pulled open the double doors at New Bethel Church on Louis Street. She stood and watched for hours on Thursday as the thick smoke from the burning abandoned homes across the street engulfed the small brick church. At one point, it seemed the church, too, would catch fire as a nearby electric pole began to smolder.

But Friday, Bethea found the old sanctuary just as she left it. An odor of smoke was perceptible, but far from overpowering.

She left in a search for a group of PSE&G workers to inquire when the power would be restored. Crews later would arrive to replace the massive wooden poles, some of which date back to the early 20th century.

Bethea hoped her small congregation would be able to meet for its regular Friday night Bible study.

"The Lord just protected it," she said with a smile of relief.

"Thank you Lord."  

George Mast contributed to this report.


Camden Courier-Post * June 13, 2011

Fundraiser held for teacher whose Camden home
was heavily damaged in 12-alarm blaze

Written by

BARBARA S. ROTHSCHILD

OAKLYN  A steady stream of vehicles pulled into the Oaklyn Municipal Building parking lot Sunday to get washed -- many of them not even dirty, but driven by owners wanting to help a teacher close to their children's hearts.

Seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade students from Oaklyn Public School hastily organized the car wash to raise money for their Spanish teacher, Sandra Arroyo, whose home was heavily damaged in the first of two raging fires in Camden last week.

Between 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on a Sunday that was sometimes overcast but mostly sunny, more than 300 cars went through the wash line, manned by about 30 students, the police chief, the mayor and several other community members.

Arroyo's home, near the site of a massive 12-alarm blaze that destroyed a block-long abandoned tire warehouse and about a dozen houses in the city's Gateway section of Camden on Thursday, sustained heavy damage to the roof, according to parents of her Spanish students.

"A bunch of us organized this," said Krista LaMaina, 14, a ninth-grader who will graduate later this week.

Added her twin sister, Shauna, "The first thing we said when we heard about (Arroyo's home) was, "What are we going to do?' "

The benefit occurred as fire investigators investigated the cause of two blazes in Camden last week. Camden police patrolled in the vicinity of old and abandoned buildings over the weekend as a safeguard against additional blazes.

In Oaklyn, teachers at the school had already taken up a clothing drive for the Arroyo family, which includes Sandra Arroyo's husband, thought to work in the medical field, and the couple's 3-year-old triplets.

"The family lost everything due to smoke and water damage," said the LaMaina twins' mother, Stephanie. The twins have a penchant for civic responsibility, following in the footsteps of their dad, Michael, the mayor of Oaklyn for the past 12 years.

"I'm proud of all the kids. They're doing a great job," Michael LaMaina said.

Students said it was the least they could do.

"We'll do anything for Mrs. Arroyo. We all love her so much," said seventh-grader Alyssa Aranda, 13.

Said eighth-grader Jaclyn Margerum, 13, "She helps everyone else out with their problems. I'm glad we could be there for her."

Seventh-grader Chloe Higgins, 13, called Arroyo the teacher who always makes her laugh.

Among the customers who lined up for a wash was Matt Scottoline, a substitute teacher at Oaklyn Public School, who made a trip from his Philadelphia home to support his co-worker.

"I've subbed for her a bunch of times. She's nice, personable and friendly," Scottoline said. He dropped about $50 in the bucket as students soaped up his navy blue Volkswagen Golf.

Lori Luppino of Oaklyn said she learned about the fundraiser from her neighbor, who works near Thursday's fire scene and knows the Arroyo family.

"It's going to rain later, but it doesn't matter," said Luppino as students dried off her Nissan Rogue.

Anne Henderson, vice president of the Oaklyn Civic Association, gave $10 as her white Ford Expedition got a rubdown. "I have no connection with the family, other than this is what you do," she said.

Some customers returned with other cars. By the end of the event, nearly $2,000 had been collected. There were donations from $5 to as much as $100, with additional contributions from nearby St. Aloysius Catholic Church, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, and Oaklyn Little League.

The Arroyos did not attend the car wash and could not be reached for comment. Parents of Sandra Arroyo's students believe the family is staying with relatives elsewhere in Camden.

Although their teacher was not in class on Friday, she was expected back today, students said.

Sandra Arroyo has brought her triplets -- two boys and a girl -- to school on occasion. Two of the tots wear size 5T, while the third is larger and wears a child size 5, parents said. Oaklyn Public School will continue to accept donations of clothes and funds for the family.

As students washed cars, members of the Oaklyn Fire Department next door were hosing down the ladder truck dispatched to the tire factory fire and to one at an old textile mill, about a mile from Thursday's fire, that grew to eight alarms in the early morning hours Saturday.

"We had a lot of embers falling on us. We always wash our engines after they've been out to a fire, but this was covered with crud after these big fires and we're giving it a special wash," Chief Mark Quinter said.

"It was filthy from the soot and the ash. We cleaned it Friday night (after the first fire) and we're cleaning it again today."

The Oaklyn truck was among those dispatched to the Thursday fire from 59 departments that came to Camden's aid. The 12-alarm blaze at the abandoned Reliable Tire warehouse took more than five hours to bring under control and destroyed or damaged nearly a dozen homes on neighboring blocks.

It was followed by the early Saturday morning inferno at a similar block-long factory formerly occupied by Howland Croft, Sons & Co.'s Linden Worsted Mills. Two firefighters suffered injuries and were treated for smoke inhalation and a sprained ankle, respectively.

Getting the Thursday fire under control was made more difficult because nearby hydrants had been stripped of their brass fittings by vandals, rendering them inoperable.

Firefighter unions also criticized Mayor Dana Redd's decision to lay off 67 firefighters in January. With the aid of a federal grant, 33 were later rehired.

Although Saturday fire was smaller, it still took nearly four hours to bring under control.

Because of the timing and the similarity in the type of buildings involved, arson is being considered as a possible cause in both instances.

No new developments were available on Sunday. Calls to Redd, her spokesman Robert Corrales, county and city fire officials and firefighter union officials were not returned.


Philadelphia Inquirer * October 10, 2011

Some Camden fire victims feel shortchanged on aid

Written by

CLAUDIA VARGAS and DARRAN SIMON

Inquirer Staff Writers

Justo Arroyo visits his fire-damaged home on Chestnut Street in Camden every few days to see how repairs are progressing.

Before he leaves, he secures a sheet of plywood over the door frame - to keep out the steel and copper thieves.

Arroyo's home was one of 18 properties damaged or destroyed on June 9, when a 12-alarm blaze devastated two square blocks at Chestnut and Orchard Streets in the Gateway neighborhood.

Within 10 days, two more massive fires - in vacant industrial sites and of seemingly suspicious origin - erupted in Camden, setting off fears that an arsonist was at work.

Four months later, officials say the fires on June 9, 11, and 19 were not related. Only the last one - at a former chemical factory on Federal Street - has been ruled arson. All three remain under investigation.

But there has been little progress in rebuilding and repairing - or, in some cases, even securing - the destruction left behind.

Debris removal must be arranged and paid for by the individual owners, according to Camden authorities. Yet the city has no clue as to who owns some of the properties, including two where the fires started.

A city relief fund was established for victims of the Chestnut Street fire and the June 11 blaze, on Winslow Street in a former garment factory. But a few of the disbursements were questionable, and some people for whom the fund was intended, such as Arroyo, got no aid.

Several of those affected by the Gateway fire, which began in a former tire warehouse, are trying to repair their houses. Some are using their savings to pay up-front costs and trying to protect their properties from thieves who still rummage through the rubble.

"I'm sure if it was Cherry Hill, that would have been cleaned up a while ago," Arroyo said.

The vast site has been mostly razed, but rubble is everywhere. It has spilled onto Orchard Street, reducing it to one lane. Residents have spotted scavengers sifting through piles of debris. Passersby use the site as a public bathroom in broad daylight and urinate against the collapsed wall of an adjacent building. The lot has become a dumping ground for garbage and car tires.

"The city hasn't done anything," complained Sofia Lopez, a Chestnut Street resident.

On Federal Street, she noted, the fire site has been fenced off and a large tarp covers most of the area formerly occupied by the Concord Chemical Co.

"They put a barricade, nice and neat," Lopez said. "Here, nothing."

The Federal Street site was secured because it is a crime scene, city spokesman Robert Corrales said. Putting a fence around the other sites would cost the city money it doesn't have, he said.

"It all comes down to money," he said.

That is also the reason the sites have not been cleaned up.

Removing debris is the responsibility of each property owner. Shyang J. Lin - whose E-Zone Management bought the former garment factory at Winslow and Jefferson in Waterfront South in the early 1990s - said he had put out demolition bids and was not yet sure how much the job would cost.

On tax records, the Chestnut Realty Association is listed as owner of the building at Orchard and Chestnut Streets that once housed Reliable Tires. But city officials say the Cherry Hill company is defunct, and they have not found anyone associated with it.

Similarly, the Concord Chemical Co. building at 17th and Federal Streets is listed as having multiple owners, and the city has yet to track down the appropriate person.

"We'll look to work with the owners of the sites," Corrales said. In the meantime, the city will "look for any available funding," such as grants, to help clear a site that requires immediate attention, he said.

Camden's code enforcement officers determined shortly after the fires that the structures left standing did not pose an imminent danger.

If someone is convicted in connection with one of the fires, that person or group could be hit with a cleanup bill.

A tip line has produced some leads in the June 19 case, said Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office. But arson is difficult to prove.

Authorities say they are searching for the driver of a green Plymouth Voyager seen on several surveillance cameras near the old chemical factory shortly before and during the June 19 fire, officials said.

After the June 9 fire, the American Red Cross moved displaced residents into a motel in Brooklawn. The city Department of Human Services helped find housing for those whose houses burned to the ground.

The city also set up a relief fund through PNC Bank for private donations. About $12,000 was collected.

Last month, at a ceremony at the Camden Children's Garden, Mayor Dana L. Redd handed out checks ranging from $300 to $1,750 to 18 families the city said were affected by the June 9 and 11 blazes.

But not everyone who received the money lived in the affected area.

Luz Jimenez lives on Diamond Street, a street over from where the June 9 fire damage was concentrated. Though hers was not on the city's list of damaged properties, she was told she was eligible for $300.

Darlene McCray got the same amount. Her house at 817 Chestnut St. was destroyed.

"The Fire Department checked, and [McCray] was affected by that [June 9] fire," Corrales said.

But McCray says, and her official Fire Department report shows, that she was the victim of a blaze on June 6.

McCray, who is still searching for housing, had contacted fire officials about getting help. They suggested she reach out to the Mayor's Office, she said. Her name was put on the victims-fund list by the Department of Human Services.

The city did not release a list of others who received checks, citing privacy issues, but Arroyos and Lopez said they got nothing. They acknowledge they did not directly ask the city for money until they heard of Redd's ceremony.

Missing out on the money "was a slap in the face," Lopez said. "What I got, I paid for myself."

After living in her Chestnut Street home for more than 20 years, Lopez said, she could not imagine moving. Looking toward the rubble, she shrugged.

"Maybe we'll stay one year more."


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