ATLANTIC CITY — Flames ripped through a multi-story apartment building Thursday morning above a Chelsea neighborhood grocery store, leaving 10 people homeless and five firefighters injured.
“You had flames blowing out every single window and door on the second floor,” said city Fire Chief Scott Evans.
An off-duty resort firefighter is being credited with rescuing a woman and a cat. A dog in one apartment was reported to be still missing Thursday afternoon.
The fire was reported just before 9:30 a.m. at 4403 Ventnor Ave. About 60 firefighters battled flames in the 90-degree heat and humidity of the day, rotating in shifts to break for water, shade and sometimes oxygen.
“The heat hampered firefighter operations severely,” Evans said. “Firefighters were succumbing to heat exhaustion very quickly. Additional firefighters were called immediately.”
Five firefighters were taken to the hospital for injuries, four of which were heat-related, and one other had a minor cut to his hand. Evans said as of 4 p.m. Thursday, all of the firefighters had been released from the hospital.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, although he said firefighters suspect it began on the second floor and extended up to the third floor of the building.
The three-story building houses A&B Market on the first floor and two residential units above. The neighboring homes, which were within feet of the burning apartments, were evacuated by firefighters moments later. Firefighters broke through windows as flames came out of them and water and ash dropped to the sidewalk.
Evans said the three-alarm fire was brought under control at 12:30 p.m.
“There were several reports of explosions on the second floor,” Evans said, adding that they suspect they were bicycle tires exploding.
Buddy Mancuso, who lives two blocks away on Delancy Place, was on his porch when he saw the smoke.
He said an off-duty Atlantic City firefighter, William Rodgers, ran into the building to evacuate the residents. Mancuso called Rodgers a “hero.”
Rodgers, who remained on the scene wearing only black shorts and sneakers, and riding a bicycle, declined to comment.
Evans said that Rodgers assisted with rescues early on in the blaze, which included one woman from the building and a cat from inside. There is still a dog reported missing in the building, Evans said.
Diane Concannon, communications director for the North Jersey Region’s American Red Cross, said the organization had three representatives on the scene today and they are assisting 10 people who were displaced in the fire. The organization is providing emergency assistance for lodging, food and clothing for the 10 people.
In addition to four Atlantic City fire stations, Absecon EMS and Atlantic City police also responded to the scene.
Mayor Don Guardian credited firefighters.
“When you have an older building with lots of construction inside, it makes it more difficult to be able to have free access,” Guardian said. “Firefighters will be staying on top of it.”
Guardian said it was too early to tell what would happen to the building.
Crowds of neighbors nearby stepped outside their homes or looked out the window to watch the fire, and others came by on bicycles or skateboards to find out what was happening. Some held their children while watching the scene; others videotaped it as the smoke appeared to get thicker throughout the fight.
Ray Gajtkowski, 69, who lives down the road, said he began to see smoke from his 20th floor residence and emerged to see what was going on.
“I just saw the big, black smoke,” he said. “It just got so engulfed ... I thought there was maybe the second home next door was on fire.”
“It's taking a long time,” he added.
Dale Finch, director of the city department of licensing and inspections, said Thursday the health department had closed A&B Market as of June 27. The store had several violations including mold on the ceiling, droppings throughout the store and outdated food on the shelves.
“It was a filthy mess,” he said.
The two residential units that have certificates of occupancy above the market have had the same tenants for “some time” and haven’t been inspected recently, he said. A construction worker will assess the area and damage by tomorrow for cost of repairs or demolition.
Tax records indicate the building is owned by Alka and Bhavesh “Bob” Patel and is assessed at $445,700.
Ricky Patel, owner of the A&B Market, said that he was on his way to the store when he received a phone call from a neighbor that the building was on fire. Patel said the store has been in the building for 80 years, and that he has owned it since 2004.
Patel said he came to the scene immediately and watched as the flames shot out the windows and black smoke billowed into the air. He said the fire had not yet spread into the first floor where his store was.
“Whatever happens, it’s going to happen. You can’t control it,” Patel said.
South Jersey Gas was on scene and had shut off the gas to the building. Workers said they were waiting to remove the meters.
Tracy Balazs, 52, lives across the street from the building and said she heard it before seeing it.
“We heard some kind of explosion ... We heard a boom,” she said. “I was worried if there were any people in there. I know school's in, so hopefully kids were in school.”
Laneicesha Revis, 26, was exiting her doctor’s office from an appointment when she saw the smoke and the fire. There were people “trying to figure out what was going on, trying to figure out if there was anybody left in there,” she said.
“The firefighters are doing their job, I hope everyone is out safe,” she said.
Ali Raheed, 50, said he was walking on the boardwalk not far from his own home when he heard the sirens.
“I could see the fire from the boardwalk,” he said. “We were hoping nobody was in there.”