Neighbors: Man who scaled burning Philly high-rise was looking for mom

PHILADELPHIA -- A man who was seen climbing down the side of a 19-story high rise building in Philadelphia Thursday night to escape a fire was apparently trying to reach his family on the 15th floor.

The fire broke out around 9:30 p.m. at Holden Tower on the 4400 block of Holden Street and injured four residents and three police officers.

Chopper 6 from sister station WPVI Action News was over the scene and captured video of Jermaine West descending down the exterior of the building. Luckily, he made it down safely. And he spoke exclusively with Action News.
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Man scales down West Philly building during fire on July 18, 2019.

"The only part the news caught was me coming down," he said. "I actually climbed up cause they say she was trapped."

West said he rushed to the building upon learning of the fire because his family members live there, and his sister had called to say his mother was unable to get out of her apartment. He first tried the front door, which was blocked.

"They said, 'The elevator's not working,'" he said. "I said, 'No problem, I'll take the steps.' I just want to go make sure my mother, my mother is sick, she's bedridden. So I need to get up there."

Earlier that day, the 35-year-old fell and cracked his hip on a set of stairs. But when he saw his mother was in need, adrenaline took over. He resorted to climbing the fenced-in balconies, with wire cutters in hand.

"Every ledge, when I grabbed the gate, the top of the gate, there was a ledge," he said. "And then I could step on the ledge and reach up to the other gate and then keep climbing my way up."

West eventually reached his mom, who assured him the fire was contained and she was OK.

"She was more shocked," he said. "She's really not surprised by the things that I do for her. She knows I'll go over and beyond for her."

So back down he went, expecting a quick arrest once on the ground. But an understanding officer let him go.

"So he actually did cut me a break, because he understood the circumstances," he said. "He knew when your adrenaline is pumping, your mom is up there, you thinking she's dying, you'd do anything you can."

The fire, located in the trash chute, was called in shortly before 9:30 p.m.

When firefighters arrived, they said they were met with light smoke throughout the apartment complex, which residents said quickly got thicker.

"Next thing you know, we came out and the whole hallway was filled up with smoke," second-floor resident Lisa Stenson said.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority conducts monthly fire drills at Westpark, and the last one was in June. But some residents said they could never have prepared for the panic they felt.

Marcella Harris was on the 11th floor when the fire broke out.

"It was so much smoke, I couldn't even breathe or nothing," she said. "So I just knew to go on the porch. Everybody was yelling, 'What floor is it on? Come out!' And I was like, 'No, we can't go out' because we wouldn't have made it."

Harris said a firefighter came to her door and led her out.

Action News is told the fire department was given a list of units to check where elderly or disabled residents live. But downstairs, for some, the panic was growing.

"They were panicked down at ground level, mainly because you could see people on their porches waving flags and trying to get help, which took a while," one resident said.

No water damage to units has been reported yet from the Philadelphia Housing Authority, but at least woman told Action News her apartment was soaked.

Kirk Dorn from PHA said the only damage to units was caused by the fire department breaking down doors and that repairs were conducted before residents were allowed back in the building.

The fire was officially placed under control at 10:56 p.m.

Authorities said the injuries to the residents and officers were due to smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion.

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