Burning Questions in West Philly Apartment Complex Fire

Searching for answers in the rubble of the disaster at Windermere Court.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 9 | Posted Feb. 23, 2011

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It’s a recent Tuesday afternoon and I’m hanging with former residents outside of Windermere Court, the 90-unit apartment complex at 48th and Walnut streets that mysteriously burst into flames on Jan. 10.

Residents have spent five weeks fighting for their rights to get back into their apartments to salvage some of their belongings: documents, blankets knit by deceased grandmas, baby clothes gifted to a pregnant woman expecting her first child in July.

Since the fire, ex-residents—many still homeless and crashing with friends in the city or New Jersey—have been forbidden from stepping foot on the property. That much is clear. The confusion part is: Who made the call? Building owners Sam and David Ginsberg or the city?

As residents futilely waited for help from either, thieves clipped a hole in the fence and looted the joint. Among items reported missing are legally owned firearms.

Also missing in the fire: pet cats.

Today’s salvage opportunity only happened because of a 48-hour injunction to halt demolition of the building. It’s unclear who brokered the deal, though the owners, the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Licenses & Inspections, and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell all take some credit. (And then Blackwell announced her re-election bid a few days later.)

Residents heard about the delay from each other—they established a listserv group—and from the news. They showed up today expecting to finally be able to go into the building and get their stuff.

Instead, they were told by Keystone Management employee John Vail, saddled with the too-little-too-late task as owners looked on from across the street, that they had to make a list of small items and members of the demo crew would go in and try to find the items.

“I think it’s bullshit,” says former resident Evan Hoffman, his breath visible in the cold. “Where’s Mayor Nutter? We’re just asking for justice here … It’s been chaos.”

“Nutter came here the night of the fire,” chimes in another man.  “He asked me about my future. I said, ‘My future is up there!’ He points toward his old home.

“Look, no damage!” shouts Lois, pointing to an air conditioner still lodged in the window of apartment 204. People who have been in the building report with the flames concentrated on the top floor of the four-story building, some sections of the building just had minor smoke and water damage.

Lois’ eyes fill with tears that she can’t get closure, get her stuff. “No! Send somebody with us and let we the owners get our things for ourselves,” she says.

With no help or communication from the city or owners about retrieving their belongings, Hoffman and other residents, desperate, resorted to breaking the law to get at their things before looters could.

“I was able to go in, get some bags, go into my third-floor apartment, come back and make another trip,” says Hoffman. “People were watching the corners for me.”

Residents Protest

On Valentine’s Day, the day demolition was scheduled to begin, dozens of ex-residents lined up and protested. Today, protest signs litter the sidewalk. One reads, “I’ve been robbed.” Another sign has a picture of a ginger tabby cat named Duece and reads, “Windermere owners say I’m not a “salvageable possession.”

Near the signs are a couple of lawn chairs for residents who have been camping out, awaiting word, any word, on their things. Next to the chairs is a pile of cat traps that Louisa Alexandra of nonprofit City Kitties was hoping set inside the building in an effort to rescue pet cats missing since the fire. Cats are known to survive for weeks and months inside buildings like Windermere Court.

But Windermere’s owners, brothers Sam and David Ginsberg, tell Alexandra that she can not go into the building, citing L&I. (The cats previously trapped by City Kitties were caught “independently,” without cooperation from the Ginsbergs.)

About an hour earlier, one of the Ginsberg brothers also refused entry to George Bengal, the director of law enforcement for the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, citing the same reason. Bengal managed to get into the building for the first time a few days earlier by securing a legal warrant after seeing a cat in the window.

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Comments 1 - 9 of 9
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1. phillyskyline said... on Feb 23, 2011 at 01:51PM

“"“It would take a lot to further overwhelm PSCPA and Animal Care and Control Team and since they’re 24/7 and have the resources available to respond to 99 percent of the emergency responses we have in Philadelphia, they are the first line in emergency animal care,” says Phillips."

Is Ms. Phillips joking? ACCT is underfunded, overwhelmed, and is absolutely not available 24/7. I don't know where she got her information, but it's 100% wrong.

It's shocking that these two agencies (OEM and PSPCA/ACCT) are too busy pointing fingers to sit down and come up with an effective, meaningful emergency protocol for animals. Does Ms. Phillips realize that Windermere tenants' pets suffered because of her inaction? If so, she certainly doesn't seem to care.

Ms. Phillips, consider yourself on notice. Philadelphians' (exorbitant) taxes pay your salary, and we intend to force you to do your job.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Feb 23, 2011 at 04:19PM

“What Bull. If Nutter had wanted to help those animals he could have. And so could George Bengal and the PSPCA. Cannot believe they missed a chance to rush in, grab some press then kill all the animals they "rescued." That's what they usually do.
ANd oh yeah....where has the press been???”

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3. Anonymous said... on Feb 23, 2011 at 06:24PM

“this is disgusting and a disgrace”

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4. Anonymous said... on Feb 23, 2011 at 06:33PM

“the spca cant even respond to half the routine calls and cruelty complaints in the city now thats a bunch of bull, they cant handle anymore work. look at the great job they did here .”

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5. AnimalWelfare said... on Feb 23, 2011 at 07:39PM

“If you are not getting the justice, then over step the mayor, and the others, by appealing to the state. If you truly want something done, call your state representatives, and speak about animal welfare - animals have hearts, emotions, bond with their owners, they are scared and feel abandoned. Work at the hearts of the politicians, and do not make it just a few of you, gather as much public support as you can. Call the Cat Rescues and the animal adoption agencies (NOT SPCA or any humane facilities). I bear to think of what the animal are feeling - abandoned, scared and unloved.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Feb 24, 2011 at 10:21AM

“Nutter is a disgrace. I politely, yes very politely, called his office to voice my opinion about the Windemere cats and I got the run around. Not only that, but his office was outrageously rude. I voted for him the first time, but I certainly won't be voting for him again! No way, no how!”

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7. Anonymous said... on Mar 14, 2011 at 09:10PM

“Nutter is absolutely awful! First, my animals are like my children. I would accept jail time by unlawfully entering that building to rescue an animal. I'd later go to every news channel and explain my story. Nutter should have done everything in his power to help those animals in need. He's going to lose a lot of votes next race. I hope Philadelphians are smart and elect someone new.”

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8. Kathleen W. said... on Mar 15, 2011 at 08:00PM

“The city of Philadelphia did a horrible job in this case. These animals needed help & nothing was done. My cats are my children, & I would have done ANYTHING to get them out of that apartment. I feel so sorry for all the suffering that happened due to the lack of caring from the city.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jun 3, 2011 at 09:05AM

“The situation with PCART Phila County Animal Rescue Team is a disgrace. Every other CART in the State has a fully equipped trailer. However, in Philly the trailer is assigned to the overworked and overstreatched PSPCA. The willing and highly trained volunteers of PCART have nothing in the way of equipment. It's no wonder that PCART loses it volunteers faster than they can train new volunteers. In the end, the animals and the people who love them are given the shaft by the City of Philadelphia.

I am blessed to live in Bucks County where we have a well staffed, well equipped and well managed CART. Philly is a disgrace!”


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