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West Philly blaze linked to auto shop that failed fire inspections two weeks ago

Firefighters attacking the flames of a fire in an auto shop at 59th and Irving streets in West Philly. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Firefighters attacking the flames of a fire in an auto shop at 59th and Irving streets in West Philly. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated: 3:30 p.m.

A large industrial building that erupted in a dramatic three-alarm blaze Monday morning in Cobbs Creek was cited for serious fire code violations by the city just two weeks ago. 

The fire sent thick billows of smoke across the city and collapsed heavy garage walls, including one onto an adjacent home. It forced nearby Tabernacle Lutheran Church daycare to evacuate and two nearby schools, William Sayre High and William C. Bryant Elementary, to close early due to the smoke and problems with water supply.

While no one appears to have been injured, the blaze could have been catastrophic for the surrounding rowhouse neighborhood, said Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel.

“If it weren’t for our firefighters cutting out that fire before it spread, the fire could have gotten into the adjacent residencies and moved all the way down the block,” Thiel said.

Thiel said the conditions inside the building were “extremely dangerous” because of the mix of toxic chemicals and flammable materials in the auto shops.

Vehicles flooded and covered with bricks at the scene of a fire in an auto shop at 59th and Irving streets in West Philly. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A ‘worst-case scenario’ live

Neighbors had recently reported problems at the site. On Oct. 4, inspectors were dispatched after the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections received a complaint about auto work being performed on the sidewalk around the building. The sprawling two-story property, near the 5900 block of Spruce Street, appears to have housed several unlicensed auto repair businesses.

Inspectors arrived planning to cite the business over unpermitted auto work and for operating without a license. But Karen Guss, an L&I spokeswoman, said that when inspectors arrived they noticed dangerous fire code violations.

“They were using portable heaters in the shop area,” Guss said. “None of the fire extinguishers had inspection tags. It’s possible they had been inspected but not tagged. But that’s unlikely.”

The business was cited over the code violations and given until November to come into compliance.

“Why didn’t L&I shut the place down?,” said Teresa Armstrong, who lives in Irving Street, two houses from the fire. 

Armstrong’s usual complaint about the garage was the cars it left parked on the sidewalk. 

But on Monday morning, she grew upset while watching about 120 firefighters and 51 emergency vehicles trying to put out a fire that could have destroyed her home and harmed her children.

Armstrong said she was lucky to be at home when the fire started. Her 36-year-old daughter has epilepsy and takes medication. 

“She wouldn’t have heard the knocking, she would still been in there,” Armstrong said. 

Catherine Wesley is visiting her cousin Sandi whose house is next door to the auto shop fire. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Neighbors in Cobbs Creek spotted flames around 10 a.m. The eastern portion of the building, which spans a full city block, was quickly engulfed. The ensuing blaze required over 100 firefighters to battle.

The neighborhood and other rowhouse sections of the city have struggled to control a rising number of unlicensed auto body shops, which are often prohibited by city zoning codes. At least seven Philadelphia auto shops have caught fire over the last year, including a high-profile scrapyard fire in Kensington last year.

Auto shops often rely on toxic materials like mercury, lead, and asbestos for their operations. If mismanaged, these contaminants can leak into the air, soil and waterways.

“You can’t really be surprised when something like this happens,” said Russell Zerbo, an advocate with the Clean Air Council. In April, Zerbo told PlanPhilly catastrophic fires was the “worst-case scenario” when it comes to auto shops operating in residential areas.

Zerbo said L&I has been doing it’s enforcement work. But there is a limit to what the agency can do.

“You can’t just go and take someone’s business from them. L&I has no power beyond this cycle of tickets and inspections. In order to get out of this cycle we’re going to need to see action from the city’s Law Department and from the courts that oversee these cases,” he said.

Michelle Russell and her family watch firefighter battle the auto shop blaze that threatens their home of ten years. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Edward Lewis, who owns a house right across the auto shop, hopes the auto shop never comes back.

“It’s dangerous living next to a garage because he stored cars in there and everything. There were cars in there exploding. It’s dangerous, could have blew fire over here and caught on fire to my house and started burning these houses,” he said.

Property records show that the structure that lit up Monday has been owned by a company called “Manning Inc.” since 1973. Prior to that it was a gas station. Efforts to reach the property owner were not immediately successful.

Guss could not immediately confirm which business was currently leasing space in the structure, due to the missing license. Online business listings show that several auto firms had occupied the structure, including Al’s Auto Body and ABM Automotive.

Calls to both companies were not immediately returned.

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