A two-alarm fire on May 24 displaced 150 residents of the Oak Hill Terrace Apartments in Penn Valley, putting a scare into many of them as they were awakened in the early morning hours.
Three people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation, including Joan Rayfield.
Rayfield, 80, had to be rescued by firemen after she lost consciousness and collapsed in the hallway on the second floor as she tried to exit the building. She lives in unit 208, directly across from where the fire started.
She remembers walking into the dark, smoky hallway, banging on doors and yelling for help as she tried to find the exit.
“It was getting harder to breathe, and I guess I just gave up and that was it. They told me they found me on the floor,” she said. “It was horrible. I thought I was dead. I came to basically as they were dragging me out of there.”
She was taken to Lankenau Medical Center and administered oxygen. She sustained damage to her esophagus from smoke inhalation, as well as rug burns and scrapes. She is recovering at her son’s Penn Valley home.
Lower Merion Fire Chief Charles McGarvey confirmed the fire started on the second floor in a unit where firefighters encountered hoarding conditions as they attacked the blaze.
“The official cause is undetermined, but it appears to have started on top of the stove,” McGarvey said.
The building, where NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley owns a condo, has a large number of Jewish residents.
Susan Baron, an advertising account executive at the Jewish Exponent who lives on the third floor, heard her fire alarm go off at 2:15 a.m. She went downstairs to investigate.
“When I got to the second floor you couldn’t see through the window — it was covered in smoke,” she said. She went outside and called 911.
“I heard the sliding glass door explode from the heat and the flames gushing out (of the apartment),’” she said.
Firemen and police soon arrived on the scene, along with the American Red Cross. The latter organization is providing families with shelter in hotel rooms rather than large indoor spaces like gymnasiums during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were prepared to issue lodging for everyone who needed it, but everyone there had insurance and had arrangements already made,” said Dave Skutnik, regional communications director for American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania.
“Our disaster responders, who are 90% volunteers, were out there just to provide support, emotional support. It’s really tough on families during COVID-19, and then you put a fire on top of it,” he said.
Jay Steinberg, a former senior leadership philanthropy officer with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, was staying with his daughter’s family at the time. He didn’t see the damage until later in the day.
“We had been evacuated before for false alarms, so I didn’t expect it to be this bad,” he said.
Lois Kaminsky was staying at her second home in Margate, New Jersey, when the fire occurred. Her business, Home Care Options, which she runs from home, is now displaced. She returned to her second-floor apartment to recover files and was overcome by the smell.
“I was wearing double masks because of COVID-19, but the smell was beyond. I’ve never smelled anything like it,” she said.
She’s in the process of transferring her agency, which provides home care for the elderly and disabled, to her house in Margate.
For other residents, finding new housing was complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Many are staying at the Marriott Hotel in Conshohocken.
“We’re very lucky. We’re trying our best to make it a home the best that we can,” Betsy Klausman said of the hotel room where she and her husband, Michael, are staying.
“There are no services. No maid service, no restaurant, no bar, no room service. The only thing we have is a room. Consequently, I am making the beds, and my husband is spraying the bathroom with Lysol,” she said.
The couple has made trips back to their apartment to pick up essential items.
“The second floor where the fire took place looks like a war zone,” she said.