Cobbs Creek: Block Responds to Aftermath of Auto Shop Fire

John Robertson’s recent falling out with Alfred Christian of Al’s Auto Services in Cobb’s Creek potentially saved him thousands of dollars.

Robertson, a West Philly resident for decades, who is now in his 80s, had been paying to park his car in Christian’s garage for the past 30 years. The shop was five doors down from Roberston’s home, on the end of Irving Street. Robertson liked to park his car there because he felt it was always safe.

But just a few weeks ago, Robertson said, he and Christian got into an argument about the parking fee. Unkind words were exchanged right outside the business, according to neighbors who witnessed the two argue. Robertson decided to move his car out of the garage and began parking nearby on Walnut Street.

So, when Al’s Auto Services burned to the ground on Oct. 21, Robertson’s car was not one of nearly a dozen destroyed in the wreckage.

“I got it out in the nick of time,” Robertson said. “It would’ve been a goner.”

The Philadelphia Fire Department officially linked the fire to an oil spill in the business, but for years, neighbors have complained about safety on the site. The City of Philadelphia’s Office of Licenses and Inspections served Christian with numerous safety violations on Oct. 6 and gave him 35 days to fix things or it would shut the business down, a representative from L&I said.

In the weeks since the destruction of a longtime neighborhood presence, life on the close-knit block of Irving Street between 59th and 60th streets has been fundamentally altered. The four-alarm fire removed families from their homes and has drawn attention to an oft-ignored pocket of the city. 

The immediate aftermath

Rasheed Cotton, a 41-year-old who operates a 7-11 store in Conshohocken, said his cousin had three cars——including a Bentley and Mercedes-Benz——that were destroyed in the fire.

Cotton, who lives on the same block the auto shop stood, had just dropped his kids off at school and gone to the grocery store when police and firefighters blocked him from returning to his house. He wasn’t able to get inside his home until the following morning. 

All that day, Cotton and other bystanders had to stand blocks away from the fire, where they could still feel the immense heat.

“I had my eggs and bacon in my bag,” Cotton said. “I could’ve taken them out and cooked them right there.” 

Michelle Russell lives on the opposite corner of the garage on 59th Street, close enough to the flames that the blinds on her kitchen window melted.

As the fire burned, she leapt up to move her 22-year-old son’s Cadillac, parked directly next to the garage. Less than 10 minutes after she returned, the garage’s wall had collapsed onto where the car had been parked.

“It was like something out of a movie,” Russell said. “It was really more of a nightmare. And now it just feels like an eerie cemetery.”

A bad neighbor

On the morning of the fire, Russell sat on her front porch. It was from there she saw Allen “Jaye” Williams, who had been renting the building from Christian to run an auto repair business, sprint out with his wife, Dominique. According to Russell, Jaye Williams was screaming, “It’s going to blow.” 

Christian initially tried to put out the fire himself, but Williams had to drag him out of the garage before a large fireball erupted, Russell said.

Photo taken by Rasheed Cotton.

Philadelphia police and fire officials have ruled out arson, but Russell was one of roughly a half dozen residents who speculated the fire may not have been accidental. Several residents said they were aware of the unlicensed work being done in the garage and did not have high opinions of either Christian or Williams.

Attempts to reach Williams have been unsuccessful so far. A number linked to Williams as recently as this month was out of service when called. Williams also recently made his social media pages private and has not accepted requests from Philadelphia Neighborhoods reporters.

Attempts to reach Christian have also been unsuccessful. Neighbors speculate he may have lost his phone in the fire, and he has not answered his door when reporters from Philadelphia Neighborhoods have come to talk to him. 

The business received L&I violations for operating an unlicensed business, lacking a premises identification, using inadequate fire extinguishers as well as a range of fire hazards, including portable heating and cooking equipment, as well as cutting and welding tools.

Marla Oliver, the block captain for the 5900 block of Irving Street, said she had made numerous calls to the City regarding the business’ license evasion and the obvious fire hazards. 

She inquired about abandoned cars parked on the sidewalk, unhealthy fumes and propane tanks in use on the street.

“Who f-cking leaves propane tanks sitting around?” Oliver said. “We have kids playing.”

A representative from L&I said the warehouse was given 35 days to comply with the violations before the City would take further action including fines and possibly shutting the business down. 

L&I said it was a resident’s 311 call that prompted the inspection and that it was the first such call received by the office about this business. Oliver believes that was her call.

“The city sucks with shit like this,” Oliver said. “Am I the only one uneasy with propane tanks like that?”

Moving forward

The Philadelphia Fire Department officially ruled the cause of the fire accidental and Philadelphia Police said the incident is under no further investigation. But residents remain skeptical of the City’s explanation. Williams’ reputation on the block has not helped dispel rumors, either. 

“That old man so grimy,” resident Jeatara Matthews said about Christian. “And he was always beefin’ with someone or something.”

Oliver said she is exploring legal action against Williams for neglect and damages. Other neighbors have expressed interest in joining her, she said, and she plans to involve as many families from the block as possible.

In the meantime, she wants to write to Philadelphia City Council about tracking business licenses and forcing compliance. Residents had concerns for years about the unlicensed business on their street and this was their worst fear come to life.

“I’m angry at the city,” Oliver said. “They’re so lenient on important things.”

Several families evacuated the block for multiple days. Oliver’s church granted her money for basic necessities, which she split with the family across from her after they were vacated from their public housing

Residents said their street will rebuild and regroup. Oliver just hopes this event can unify the block to be more aware of the community’s problems hiding in plain sight.

“It’s hard to get people to care about issues in this area sometimes,” Oliver said. “Now that there’s a tragedy, everyone has an opinion.”

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