Updated: 5:15 p.m.
Authorities in West Chester have called in federal investigators to assist in piecing together what caused a large nursing home complex to burn to the ground Thursday night.
Officials say 27 people were treated for injuries after a fire ripped through the Barclay Friends Senior Living Community. Seventeen people remain hospitalized.
The enormous blaze forced the evacuation of more than 160 people. Officials would not comment on whether anyone died.
Just before 11 p.m., flames broke out and quickly engulfed the campus of several buildings, taking just a half-hour to become a five-alarm fire. The flames were under control by around 1 a.m.
“The fire is still burning in spots. We’re still working the fire scene. We have not been able to enter the scene as of yet,” said Don Robinson, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
ATF is not involved because foul play is suspected. Robinson says they’re there to provide expert resources, like forensic specialists. He says determining the cause comes after figuring out who the missing are.
“That’s the No. 1 priority — that we can account for everybody,” Robinson said. “The scene, and how it happened, will follow on.”
Wheelchairs, sheets, chairs, tables and other items from the senior living facility are strewn around the gutted building, as authorities continue to battle sporadic hotspots.
West Chester Mayor Jordan Norley said there are a handful of residents who remain missing. And there’s a chance they just did’t make it out.
“We’ve yet to see really how this all flushes out and what the impact really is and the level of victims, frankly,” Norley said. “It’ll take some time for healing for the community. The scale and level of this fire is unprecedented in our community.”
Larry Kingsland, 62, an aircraft mechanic for Boeing, lives nearby and was awoken by the fire.
“There was as many vehicles as I have ever seen in my life,” Kingsland said. “There were men and women going towards that fire. There was glass breaking and glass exploding and just the flames ripping out the windows and out of the top of the building. Just unbelievable, and all you could think of is, god forbid is there people in there?”
Kingsland and other neighbors assisted emergency responders by helping to evacuate the elderly residents from the scene, frantically pushing wheelchairs or carrying people out.
“Everybody was getting people out,” he said. “A lot of the people ended up in my front yard waiting to get picked up.”
West Chester resident Bill Barnes arrived at the site just after 11 p.m. to rescue his mother-in-law, Beatrice Conners, who is 82 and suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. She does not have any injuries, but Barnes said she is rattled.
“She was scared. Most of the people were scared. They were cold and confused,” Barnes said of the evacuation. “They were all wrapped in sheets, and they were all lined up together. There were a ton of them.”
Initially, he was not sure where to start looking amid the chaos of the scene.
“It took us a couple hours to figure out where she was at,” Barnes said. “It was scary. I was impressed with how bad it was. I didn’t expect it.”
Barnes said his mother-in-law and many other residents left behind all their belongings.
“They lost everything,” he said. “And now many of them are homeless.”
Investigators are still probing the cause of the blaze. Police told reporters the fire looks like it was somehow sparked in an area for residents with memory issues.
“It was a sight that will never leave my mind for the rest of my life,” Kingsland said. “It was an amazing sight to see something that devastating.”
This developing story will be updated throughout the day.