South Philly neighbors pull together in wake of deadly explosion

Firefighters pour water on the remains of two rowhouses in the 1400 block of South 8th Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Firefighters pour water on the remains of two rowhouses in the 1400 block of South 8th Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 6:15 p.m. Saturday

South Philadelphia residents are organizing to help families who lost their homes Thursday to a mysterious explosion that ripped through three rowhouses and took at least two lives.

One day later, officials have few new details about the cause or cost of the fiery blast on the 1400 block of S. 8th Street. The cause hasn’t been determined and officials haven’t been able to complete their investigation because of the dangerous conditions of partially destroyed homes. The full number of casualties linked to the blast is still unknown.

“The reality is somebody could have been walking in front of those buildings,” said Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel. “There’s no way to know that until we start this very delicate and dangerous process of delayering and taking debris off a piece at a time.”

What’s clear is that many in the area are keeping a supportive eye out for the approximately 60 people displaced by the fire, from donating free meals to setting up GoFundMe fundraisers for families affected. Thousands of dollars had been raised to support families in need by Friday afternoon.

Passyunk Square Civic Association set up a fund that will be used for direct assistance for families whose homes were damaged or lost. Other neighbors delivered hot coffee and donuts to work crews.

“We really saw the best of Philadelphia in the wake of this tragic event. We had neighbors helping neighbors, families helping families and folks that risked their lives to rescue strangers,” Thiel said. “But we are very disappointed in the outcome of this incident. It could have been a heck of a lot worse, but that’s a small consolation for us.”

The commissioner declined to provide additional details, citing the ongoing nature of an investigation into the three-alarm fire, which sent plumes of smoke across South Philadelphia and streams of water pouring in every direction.

The large quantity of water pumped into the smoldering crater left by the explosion may have undermined the integrity of the nearby roadway, preventing the entry of heavy equipment, Thiel said.

“Our first concern, after ensuring the safety of the neighbors, is to get in there and answer those questions,” he said.

A Fire Department spokeswoman said Saturday evening that two bodies had been recovered, one on Friday and one on Saturday. Still unidentified are the people lost in the blast. The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported that one of the missing is Rudi Kambong, a 65-year-old man who was on bed rest on the second floor of one of the partially destroyed homes. “We just want to know what happened,” Fikke Kambong, his daughter, told the Inquirer. “We want to have closure.”

On Friday morning, emergency crews and mobile command centers had taken over the site of the fire, near the intersection of 8th and Reed streets. Icicles hung from charred rafters that filled the basements of the collapsed buildings and the street was still littered with shattered glass from the explosion.

Neighbors present at the time of the explosion said it sounded like “a bomb went off.”

“We heard a big explosion. Thought it was a car but it was too big to be a car,” said 8th Street resident Keith Dunbar. “I went outside and the front of two properties had collapsed on the street. They were smoldering.”

Thiel recounted ultimately unsuccessful efforts by nearby neighbors to extinguish a blaze that was being fed, in part, by a gas line before firefighters arrived. Neighbor Lisa Marie Cerra told the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday that others had attempted to rescue an individual trapped by the flames.

“We saw her feet, and then they couldn’t get to her,” she said.

The fire, the sixth major blaze this year, was extinguished by the mid-afternoon.

At the Friday press conference, Thiel declined to disclose the precise address of the building where the blast may have originated. He also refused to disclose if any utility crews had recently visited the block –– potentially a key detail, as nearby residents detected the odor of gas around the time of the explosion.

A spokesperson for Philadelphia Gas Works said the company has “no record of recent street work in the area near where the incident occurred” and would “cooperate fully with ongoing investigation efforts.”

But Thiel said that a full investigation could take months — or more — to conclude.

PlanPhilly’s Catalina Jaramillo contributed reporting.

This article was updated to include information about the recovery of two bodies.

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