A four-alarm fire on Monday destroyed a South Philadelphia garage that housed the bulk of the Fralinger String Band's equipment, less than two months before the Mummers' annual New Year's Day performance.
"It's where we build props and where we build scenery for show," said Fralinger String Band captain Thomas D'Amore, whose organization rented space in the complex at 2nd and Wharton streets to construct and store the lion's share of their parade day performance equipment. He said the space was adjacent to an autobody shop also at the property. "We lost a good chunk of money, but we're fortunate none of our members were inside."
Firefighters first saw smoke coming from the autobody shop shortly before 2:15 p.m. and had to cut a hole in a garage door to gain entry, according to Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. Inside, several cars were ablaze and the situation was "untenable."
"By the time they were in, the fire had advanced to the point where they had to make the decision to get out," Ayers said. "And it was a good decision." Within an hour, the fire had been called to four alarms and a rear wall of the warehouse collapsed.
Three neighboring rowhomes were evacuated as the fire spread – one was severely damaged and a second was being investigated for possible structural instability. A woman in the first home was hospitalized for smoke inhalation but is in stable condition, according to Ayers.
Power was also shut off to residents as 33 fire companies and 120 firefighters battled the blaze. "We will communicate with PECO and see when it's safe to restore service," Ayers said.
The fire was complicated by the volume of equipment in Fralinger's warehouse, according to Ayers, especially flammable materials like glue and paint. "There were several explosions early on starting a half hour into the fire, with the last one a half hour ago," he said Monday evening. The fire at that time was contained, but not yet under control.
Despite the blaze, D'Amore doesn't plan to let his members' hard work go up in smoke. "We will double-time it and make sure we're ready," he said, adding that the club has usually spent about three-quarters of its annual budget by this time of year. "It's going to take a lot of work, but we'll get there. We will bounce back – it's our Mardi Gras. It's the biggest party in the city and a lot of fun."
D'Amore said he's already received calls from several other Mummers groups offering to lend a hand. "It's really close-knit within the Mummers," he said. "It wouldn't surprise me if everybody helps in some way. We're a brotherhood."
Unlicensed auto shop owner under fire
Ayers said the blaze's official cause and place of origin won't be determined until the Fire Marshal completes an investigation. But Joseph Sigismondi, who city records show owns the property and operated the auto repair shop where flames were first spotted, is quickly getting heat for not having a license to do autobody work at the warehouse.
Sigismondi has been cited four times by the Department of Incenses and Inspections in the past two years for operating without a permit and failing to acquire a license, with the last violation issued this summer, according to city records. Sigismondi also owes over $53,000 in delinquent taxes on the property, tax records state.
A judge in September ordered the garage to be auctioned at sheriff's sale and the city mailed a letter to Sigismondi in late October informing him they were moving forward with the auction, according to court documents.
The last court action in the still-active case came just three days ago, when the city filed an affidavit stating Sigismondi had been notified of the impending sale. It is unclear when the property was set to go up for auction or if the past violations had anything to do with the fire.