Blowtorch may have sparked aquatic center fire

Up in smoke: Firefighters respond to a four-alarm blaze at Aquatic Fitness Center on Monday. PHOTO: PHILADELPHIA FIRE DEPARTMENT / TWITTER

About 100 patrons and employees of a Torresdale aquatic and fitness center escaped a four-alarm fire that may have been sparked by a roofer’s blowtorch on Monday morning.

Two people sought medical treatment for smoke inhalation, but the Philadelphia Fire Department reported no other injuries to civilians or emergency responders. Firefighters prevented the fast-moving flames from igniting nearby residences, although wayward embers burned several neighbors’ lawns, according to broadcast news reports.

The blaze erupted shortly after 11 a.m. at Aquatic Fitness Center and the adjoining Aquahab Physical Therapy at 3600 Grant Ave. By 11:30 a.m., the fire department advised the public via Twitter: “Major fire response near Grant Avenue and Fordham Street in Northeast Philadelphia. Please avoid the area.”

At 1:10 p.m., the city’s Office of Emergency Management via Twitter advised neighbors to shelter in place and remain inside their homes or businesses. The fire department Tweeted at 1:26 p.m. that the flames had been declared under control. Moments later, the department Tweeted that the cause was unknown and under investigation. More than 50 fire vehicles and 150 firefighters responded to the emergency.

The fire department had not released additional information about the circumstances of the blaze as of yesterday afternoon.

On Monday night, 6ABC reported that contractors were working on the roof of the facility when the fire started. One worker told the station that a welder’s blow torch sparked flames that spread quickly through the roof’s insulation. The fire department has not confirmed that account.

An AFC manager reportedly said that about 100 people were inside the building but all were evacuated. Many of those were there for physical therapy treatments in the facility’s olympic-sized pool.

Matt Littman, president and CEO of AFC Fitness, issued a printed statement that stated in part: “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.”

City records show that the property is assessed for tax purposes at $2.6 million. It last sold for $500,000 in 1991. The three-acre property featured a 32,726-square-foot structure with an arching roof that resembled an aircraft hangar and sheltered the indoor pool. After the fire, only a frame was left standing.

The property is bordered on two sides by the John F. Byrne Golf Club. The Byberry Creek passes within 30 yards of the building. Residential lots with twin homes abut the other two sides of the aquatic center property. Some sit less than 20 yards from the pool structure. ••