READING, Pa. - Flames shot into the nighttime sky over Reading Tuesday night, quickly engulfing a city apartment building. Nobody was hurt, but nearly 20 people were without a home just two days before Thanksgiving.
Fire crews had their hands full for most of the evening. The families who live there escaped with their lives, but lost everything in the process.
Firefighters said the mansion used to be two stories but was later converted into three stories. They said the old roof wasn't replaced, just covered up and that gave the fire plenty of space to hide.
Tenants on Hill Road across from City Park in Reading said they think the fire started in the wall on the third floor. Monica Berrios' brother's family was on that floor.
"She was sleeping and my brother was probably in the room watching TV with the kids and it came from the kids' room. The smoke, that's where they first saw it," said Berrios.
Smoke led to flames and firefighters said they were called to the two-alarm fire just after 5 o'clock.
"This fire was fought for a period of time by the occupants prior to notifying the fire department," said Lt. Jeremy Searfoss of the Reading Fire Marshal's office.
The landlord didn't want to go on camera but said he did try to put out the fire in the bathroom wall of the third floor.
"We always tell people the big priority is to get out," said Searfoss, "Make sure everybody is out and just call us right away."
The landlord said he was able to get his 19 tenants out.
"I had my baby in there. I put him to sleep. And I just rushed him into his car seat, got out," said Belen Ruiz, who lived in a first floor apartment.
Ruiz said she's thankful her four-month-old Esteban is OK. But as she watched the building burn, she said, "It's bad, really bad."
Reading firefighters said they were put on the defensive because the fire could hide and the threat of a roof collapse. At one point, it appeared to be under control, but then flared up.
"It's very hard for the families right now because they're just standing around basically watching their home burn," said Searfoss.
Some were so emotional they couldn't speak, like Berrios' sister-in-law.
"What a way to start Thanksgiving, but at least be thankful for our lives," said Berrios.
The Red Cross is helping the families who lost everything from fire, smoke or water damage. The Reading Fire marshal said the cause of the fire is under investigation.
Allentown, PA 18102