A fire at a Northeast Philadelphia health center and indoor swim club that forced people wearing only their bathing suits out into the cold air and left two people suffering from smoke inhalation spread to four alarms Monday.
Flames broke out before 11:15 a.m. at the Aquatic Fitness Center and Aquahab Physical Therapy along Grant Avenue near Fordham Road in the city's Torresdale section.
The fire quickly spread to three alarms then four alarms as thick smoke poured into the sky from the building that sits at the rear of a long parking lot. As SkyForce10 hovered overhead you could see firefighters shooting water into the barn-like structure, which was badly damaged, that houses a large pool.
Carol Hoffman was working out in the basement of the facility when fire alarms went off.
"By the time I got to the top of the steps, I could see people running out in bathing suits," Hoffmann told NBC10.
"When we got outside, there was no one, nobody knew what to do, it was awful," Hoffman, who has lost three family members to fire, said.
"People were pulling people out in wheelchairs, a lot ran out in their bathing suits," she said.
Witnesses say there were about a dozen people in the therapy area of the building, including employees, and 30 people in the basement working out at the time of the fire.
"Actually the woman who pulled the fire alarm started to yell for us, letting us know it was a real fire, not a drill," said Becky Hodson, an employee at the facility. "We do do drills. Luckily we practice and since she was the one that notified them so quickly we got the people out of the pool, just grabbed their stuff for them and ran outside with them."
Two people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation, firefighters said.
Embers from the fire spread to nearby lawns, causing small fires at neighboring properties.
"The heat was so intense so we all moved back," said Mike Wallace, a witness.
Wallace told NBC10 he saw contractors using a blow torch on the facility's roof shortly before the fire began.
"Those flames can shoot ten, 12 feet so if you're not really careful, they probably were professionals, but you know accidents happen," Wallace said.
Firefighters could be seen battling the flames from neighboring streets, stretching hoses for blocks to neighboring hydrants. In total it took more than 50 apparatus and 150 firefighters to contain the blaze, the Philadelphia Fire Department said.
Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel sent in heavy rescue and special ops teams to make sure no one was trapped inside.
"They went in and they were able to search that area," Thiel said. "So we believe now that the building is clear but again it's going to be a little while before we can say that 100 percent."
The Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management asked people to avoid the area near the fitness center as crews worked to contain the situation. Philadelphia Police also warned of the closure of Grant Avenue.
AFC Fitness: Northeast Philadelphia offers classes, an indoor Olympic-size swimming pool and other health club amenities, according to its website. The large facility -- AFC claims it houses the largest pool in Philadelphia -- sits next to John F. Byrne Golf Club.
Matt Littman, the president and CEO of AFC Fitness, released the following statement on the fire:
“We’re extremely fortunate that our staff and members were able to swiftly and safely evacuate during the fire at our Northeast Philadelphia location on Grant Avenue this morning. The damage to the facility was severe and the Grant Avenue location will remain closed until further notice. Our team is working to accommodate displaced members and we’re encouraging them to utilize our other locations in Feasterville, Jenkintown and Bala Cynwyd.
We’re also working to assess the damage and determine our path forward, but can confirm at this time that we’re committed to rebuilding our Northeast Philadelphia location. We truly appreciate the understanding and support of our members and the community during this difficult time.”