For Camden tenants already living in scary conditions, fatal fire is final insult

At the Cra-West Apartments in Camden on Oct. 27, tenant Dehna Morris holds a toy that belongs to her 4-year-old son after a three-alarm fire at the complex forced them out.

At the Cra-West Apartments in Camden on Oct. 27, tenant Dehna Morris holds a toy that belongs to her 4-year-old son after a three-alarm fire at the complex forced them out. (April Saul for WHYY)

Updated at 2:48 p.m.

Days after a three-alarm fire gutted the Cra-West Apartments in Camden’s Cramer Hill early Sunday morning, the tenants were still reeling.

On Monday, Juan Cruz Cardona, a landscaper, sold his 1996 Toyota Corolla for $1,000 in the complex’s parking lot because now he needed the cash.

Samuel Velez, a 14-year tenant, slept in an abandoned building on Sunday night. On disability for bipolar disorder, Velez said he had missed a bus that could have taken him and the $400 he’d gotten from the Red Cross to a motel. His Monday night lodging would be a bright blue Suzuki in the Cra-West lot, courtesy of a friend.

Samuel Velez sits with his belongings in the wake of the fire
At the gutted Cra-West Apartments in Camden, tenant Samuel Velez sits with his belongings from his home of the last 14 years. Velez, who has bipolar disorder and is on disability, had spent the first and second nights after the Oct. 25 fire sleeping in an abandoned building, then in a car. (April Saul for WHYY)
At the Cra-West Apartments in Camden on Oct. 26, tenant Juan Cruz Cardona (left) sells his Toyota Corolla for $1,000 because he needed the cash after the Oct. 25 fire gutted the building, forcing him to move.
At the Cra-West Apartments in Camden on Oct. 26, tenant Juan Cruz Cardona (left) sells his Toyota Corolla for $1,000 because he needed the cash after the Oct. 25 fire gutted the building, forcing him to move. (April Saul for WHYY)

Erica Diaz, who credits neighbor and best friend Mara Angeli Matos with saving her life, went to the Intensive Care Unit at Cooper University Hospital to see her. Matos, one of nine people to be hospitalized from the blaze, had stopped to wake up Diaz and her family when the fire broke out. As a result, she was forced to jump from a third-floor window, Diaz said, sustaining critical injuries.

On Monday afternoon, Erika Romero’s family was visited by police, who told them her uncles Roberto Romero and Luis Silva had died in the fire.

By then, 34-year-old Brandon Adams had been arrested for allegedly starting the fatal fire and charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

“It’s hard to know,” said Romero, “that you lost family members because someone intentionally set it on fire. It’s hard to know people could do stuff like that.”

The gutted Cra-West Apartments in Camden, after a three-alarm fire on Oct. 25.
The gutted Cra-West Apartments in Camden, after a three-alarm fire on Oct. 25. (April Saul for WHYY)

The fire, and one that broke out a stone’s throw and a few minutes later on the 3800 block of High Street, strained firefighting resources in Camden. Because the apartment fire went to three alarms, companies from nearby suburbs had to be called. Camden Fire Chief Michael Harper said it took 12 minutes for an engine from Cherry Hill to respond to the other blaze, in a rowhouse in the middle of a block.

“That’s bad,” said Harper, “because the fire doubles in size every minute that goes by.”

Sam Munoz, president of Camden Fire Officers IAFF Local 2578, said cutbacks over the years have made fighting fires tougher in the city. “We appropriate the first responders,” he said, “but police and EMS are not trained firefighters.”

Dehna Morris and Elton Mundle remove belongings from their apartment
At the Cra-West Apartments in Camden on Oct. 27, tenants Dehna Morris (left) and Elton Mundle remove belongings from the apartment they shared with their 4-year-old son before the Oct. 25 fire at the complex. (April Saul for WHYY)

For Cra-West residents, the blaze also exposed living conditions in the building that made them feel unsafe.

When Jessica Lynn and her mother Pamela Mumford moved in 14 months ago, the 22-year-old certified nursing assistant remembers asking property manager Gidget Bower if the front door was ever going to be locked.

“She told us,” said Lynn, “that the Puerto Ricans on the first floor were always having arguments and busting the door open.” Tenant Evelyn Cruz said, “The property manager knew what was happening here was totally wrong; you secure the doors no matter how many times they break.”

When reached by WHYY, Bower refused to speak to the media.

Renant Jessica Lynn signs a document allowing her to retrieve belongings from the apartment she shared with her mother; at right is property manager Gidget Bower
At the Cra-West Apartments in Camden on Oct. 27, tenant Jessica Lynn signs a document allowing her to retrieve belongings from the apartment she shared with her mother before the three-alarm fire on Oct. 25 gutted the building. At right is property manager Gidget Bower.(April Saul for WHYY)

Resident Sabrina Semidey recalled people coming in from the street to urinate, defecate, and have sex in the hallways; and a laundry room that was littered with syringes and crack vials. She said management removed the door because people would lock it from the inside while getting high and going to sleep.

“A majority of people living in that building were older,” she said, “but some had small children like me. I’d come home from a long day and someone would be getting oral sex on the stairs.”

In the five years Janaiah Rivera lived at Cra-West, she said tenants “called the city, we called code enforcement a lot. We called the mayor. The exit signs didn’t work, there were no fire extinguishers, the smoke detectors didn’t work.”

Only one tenant interviewed reported having a fire extinguisher in his or her apartment. All said there were none in the hallways, though Chief Harper recalled that his firefighters found one on the floor; tenants reported that alarms did go off the night of the fire. Neither Camden Mayor Frank Moran nor Code Enforcement Director Luis Ruiz returned calls seeking comment about the fire.

The complex tenants were so inured to the chaos outside their doors that earlier Saturday night, they said, nobody was that fazed to find headphones burning in a waste basket on the third floor. They extinguished that fire themselves without calling for help. Residents attributed it to Adams as well; they said he had been seen loitering in the stairwell and been asked to leave by residents.

“That was a wake-up call,” said tenant Jessica Lynn.

Erica Diaz, Naquon Fisher and Sincere Fisher
On Oct. 27, tenants Erica Diaz, Naquon Fisher and Sincere Fisher, 5, were staying at the WoodSpring Suites in Cherry Hill after being displaced from their home at the Cra-West Apartments in Camden by the three-alarm fire on Oct. 25. (April Saul for WHYY)

The big fire broke out around 3 a.m. and was quickly followed by the one on High Street. Harper said he was driving to Cra-West when the call came in for the second blaze. Several officials said they suspect that was also set by Adams, who had been living there with other family members, though he has not yet been charged.

The residents of Cra-West said they stayed put partly because of the inexpensive rents, though several reported that the prices for the same-sized apartments could be wildly inconsistent.

“My friend upstairs was paying $1,200, and we were paying $650 for the same thing!” said Janaiah Rivera. Velez wondered what else he could afford on his disability check of a little over $800 a month.

Tenants remove belongings from their apartments
At the Cra-West Apartments in Camden on Oct. 27, tenants remove belongings from their apartments after a three-alarm fire on Oct. 25 gutted the complex. (April Saul for WHYY)
At the gutted Cra-West Apartments in Camden, tenant Samuel Velez carried his belongings from his home of the last 14 years
At the gutted Cra-West Apartments in Camden, tenant Samuel Velez carried his belongings from his home of the last 14 years. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

It was the camaraderie of the tenants, they said, which made up for the rest. As she made funeral arrangements for her uncles, Erika Romero recalled, “It was horrible there. I used to tell them all the time, find somewhere else to go … but they never did.”

For Janaiah Rivera, it was a love/hate situation. “I learned to get used to it,” said Rivera. “I loved the people that were there, but hated it because of the things we did have to go through.”

This week, neighbors commiserated in the parking lot as they trudged into their burned-out building to collect belongings. Neighborhood leaders like Edwin Ramos came to distribute donated clothing and diapers, while affected families set up crowdfunding pages on Facebook.

At the Cra-West Apartments in Camden on Oct. 27, tenant Pamela Mumford gets a hug after removing belongings from the apartment she shared with her daughter before the fire on Sunday
At the Cra-West Apartments in Camden on Oct. 27, tenant Pamela Mumford gets a hug after removing belongings from the apartment she shared with her daughter before the fire on Sunday. (April Saul for WHYY)

On Tuesday morning, Dehna Morris laughed as she salvaged $21 from the first-floor apartment she shared at Cra-West with Elton Mundle and their four-year-old son.

“He still asks,” she said, “When can we go back home? Was it real or a dream?’”

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