Walnut Hill: Windermere Fire Leaves Residents Displaced, Disappointed

Rafiq Jenison maintains that the ban on residents returning is for security and safety.
West Philadelphia resident Jamilla Price was shocked that people weren't allowed to retrieve their belongings.

A fire engulfed and eventually destroyed the Windermere Court Apartments in West Philadelphia. As if this wasn’t devastating enough, the aftermath proved to be even worse since the fire on Jan. 10.

With the building declared imminently dangerous  by the Department of Licenses & Inspections, residents were unable to retrieve their valuables for over a month, causing even more anguish and disappointment for already grief-stricken residents.

The 100 tenants seem to be getting little to no communication from the owners, David and Sam Ginsberg. With word that the building was being demolished and a crane appearing on the scene, former residents demanded to get into the building to retrieve their valuables.

Veronica Palmer, who has been a resident of this neighborhood for over 12 years, knows several people who were affected by the fire.

“People are really angry. They wanted access to get their things shortly after the fire, not after 34 days,” she said.

Rafiq Jenison maintained that the ban on residents returning is for security and safety.

However, the poor condition of the building did not allow for people to go in and retrieve their own things. Instead, they were forced to make lists of what they needed and wait for security to get the items.

“I think it’s wrong that they’re not letting the people back in there to get their stuff because some stuff is worth sentimental value and you can’t replace it. If they can go in there and get it why can’t the other people go in and get their stuff?” said Jamilla Price, another longtime resident of the neighborhood.

But officials said that though the reasons behind the fire are still unknown, the reason for keeping tenants out of the building is solely for the safety of the residents.

“It really wasn’t safe. Licenses & Inspections was not allowing it. The residents thought it was safe because they might see a mechanic or a license inspection person, but they don’t understand that these people are insured and trained so they can go in there,” said Rafiq Jamison, who works for All Purpose Security, the company that was hired to watch the building and keep former residents from attempting to come in.

Rafiq Jamison, an employee of All Purpose Security, explained why residents were kept out of the building.

Residents were highly upset, holding protests to delay the demolition of the building to allow them time to retrieve their belongings, some of which included pets.

“I was out here for at least seven days running and in the seven days I saw basically the same faces every day. They were highly mistreated,” said Palmer.

City Kitties, a West Philadelphia-based feline rescue group, helped to rescue seven cats from the building who, surprisingly, survived the several weeks it took to finally rescue them from the abandoned building.

“Can you imagine looking up there and seeing your animals and you can’t get to them? That would hurt,” said Price.

The Windermere Court Apartments seen after the destruction of the fire.

And residents seem to agree. So much so that many of them have decided to file a class action lawsuit against the building owners for their negligence and/or recklessness in this tragic situation. The suit deals with the fact that the residents believe that the building was not equipped with proper fire alarms or sprinklers and did not undergo proper inspections.

According to the Philadelphia Fire Department, 70 percent of all fire fatalities occur in structures with no smoke alarms or dead or missing batteries. Though there were no human fatalities in this incident, residents believe that with the lack of preparation, the outcome had the potential to be far worse.

The minimal assistance the residents received when the fire occurred certainly did not help. Former residents of the Windermere Court Apartments have been disappointed by the building’s owners as well as the city for the lack of communication or help with the aftermath of the fire.

“It’s like the death of a really, really serious loved one. You could really be in a funk for so long,” said Palmer. “I was amazed at the number of those who came out each and every day and still managed to go to work.”

The demolition of the building finally began on Feb. 28, but it is just the beginning of a long road of rebuilding and starting over for everybody involved. By seeking justice for what they believe to be their unfair treatment, residents hope to move on from their tragic losses.


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