Five Pa. Firefighters Hospitalized After Battling Blaze

A fire crawled to the top of an Allentown row house Thursday afternoon and then jumped from roof to neighboring roof, burning six homes.

It might have started at an electric coffeemaker.

Five Allentown firefighters were hospitalized and four others were sickened as they battled the fire in the 800 block of N. Eighth Street, authorities said.

Six houses had some fire damage, and four of them had heavy damage. Other homes had smoke and water damage. No resident was hurt.

The fire started around noon at 854 N. Eighth St., a three-story row house. A resident said flames broke out near his coffeemaker.

Andres Soto said he had made coffee earlier and left the machine on to keep the coffee warm. He said he left the kitchen for several minutes and returned to find a wall of flames.

"I couldn't do anything," he said. "I had to leave."

Flames tore through the roofs of the row homes one by one, first 854 Eighth St., then 852, 856 and 858.

Soto fled wearing only a pair of boxer shorts -- neighbors later supplied him with clothes -- and he called 911. By the time firefighters arrived, the flames had spread.

For five hours, firefighters chased the fire and drenched the homes. As the blaze continued at 4 p.m., firefighters cut holes in the roofs of neighboring houses to halt the spread.

"The problem is that it got into the roof line and extended north," fire Capt. John Christopher said.

Christopher said the fire marshal has not been able to investigate what caused the fire and could not confirm it was a kitchen mishap.

Five hospitalized firefighters were overcome by dehydration and heat exhaustion, according to fire union President John Stribula. At least four others were treated at the scene, Christopher said.

Stribula said firefighting efforts were hampered by a provision in the department's new city contract that sets a staffing level of 25 firefighters per shift -- below the 30 provided in the previous contract.

The staffing level is called "the minimum," but because of budget constraints it's generally the maximum staff allowed, he said.

Every firefighter on duty responded to the fire, and higher-ranking fire officials also had to assist, Christopher said.

"We have all-hands-on-deck on this one," Christopher said.

According to initial emergency radio dispatches, firefighters found flames on the first floor and in the attic when they arrived, an indication the fire may have been climbing inside the walls before flames became visible.

Firefighters pumped water from an aerial truck on N. Eighth Street, and other firefighters attacked the flames from an alley near Greenleaf Street.

Gloria Arroyo and her four children fled their 858 N. Eighth St. home with one of their dogs. A friend helped save the family's second dog.

"I didn't smell anything," she said. "Our neighbors banged on the door and told us there was a fire."

Arroyo huddled across the street with her children, her roommate and her roommate's children, watching the windows of her third-floor room get knocked out to vent the smoke and flames.

The fire appeared to die down a little more than an hour after it began, but the flames suddenly kicked back up, sending a heavy blanket of black smoke across the neighborhood.

The smoke, which could be seen several blocks away, forced fire and police crews to send otherwise safe neighbors inside their homes. The smoke got so heavy, one police officer suggested wearing gas masks.

At one point, fire officials feared the roof damage had dangerously weakened the ceilings and walls of two of the row houses. All firefighters were ordered to leave the buildings.

Three hours after the fire began, one firefighter radioed, "The roof is totally gone on 856."

The American Red Cross of the Greater Lehigh Valley was at the scene. The four homes that were heavily damaged probably will be uninhabitable, Christopher said.

Displaced residents were sent to a shelter at Washington Elementary School at Ninth and Washington streets. The Red Cross said it later provided temporary lodging, food and clothing to four families, which included nine adults and 15 children.

Four other homes also were affected by the fire, the Red Cross said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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