WILKES-BARRE — Two women died and nearly 150 tenants were evacuated from the 11-story Lincoln Plaza apartment building when a fire ripped through a fifth-floor residence Tuesday afternoon.
City Fire Chief Jay Delaney and Luzerne County Coroner Bill Lisman confirmed the deaths inside the apartment structure at East Northampton Street and South Wilkes-Barre Boulevard. Delaney said the bodies were found by firefighters on the fifth floor.
Lisman identified the women as Luanne Gilroy, 62, and Gloria Nieves, 55, and said they were pronounced dead at the scene. The women lived in separate apartments, he noted.
Many tenants escaped with just the clothes on their backs while several residents were able to grab blankets and pets. Firefighters assisted tenants who use wheelchairs, while Police Chief Marcella Lendacky and police officers helped remove several dogs and cats.
Iris Nieves, a fifth-floor tenant, said she was inside her apartment when she heard an explosion that she believed came from an adjacent apartment just before noon.
“All I know is something exploded,” Iris said. “I tried getting to the hallway, but I couldn’t due to the smoke so I went to my balcony.”
She said firefighters helped her escape along with her dog, Harry. She was nervously searching for her sister, Gloria, also a fifth-floor tenant.
“He’s (dog) the first thing I grabbed,” Nieves said. “A part of me is missing without knowing where my sister is at.”
No ladder rescues
Adam Tomchak and his wife, Gerri, escaped with their cat, Scout, but were worried about empty oxygen tanks inside their fourth-floor apartment.
“We heard the fire alarm going and grabbed our cat,” Gerri said.
Adam wheeled a cart holding an oxygen tank that was nearly empty.
Chief Delaney said additional aerial ladder trucks from neighboring municipalities were called in anticipation of removing tenants from balconies. One city aerial ladder truck positioned next to the apartment building on South Wilkes-Barre Boulevard was only able to reach the third floor.
“Due to the size of the building, early on, we called for aerial ladder assistance from Plains, Hanover Township and Kingston,” Delaney said. ‘We thought we would have to take some people off from the rooms up there. We then asked people to stay in place. We did not take them down by aerial ladder. It was safer to wait and put the fire out which we did.”
A man and a woman who leaned over a seventh-floor balcony, directly two floors above the blaze, were swallowed in heavy black smoke. They were later rescued by firefighters who went through the building.
GAR used as shelter
Elderly tenants were placed on a school bus and driven about 200 yards to a community room at nearby Boulevard Townhomes on South Wilkes-Barre Boulevard. They were then taken by a bus from the Luzerne County Transportation Authority to Wilkes-Barre GAR High School where the Wyoming Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross set up a shelter.
“We’re prepared to house about 50 individuals in the gym,” said Wilkes-Barre Area School District Superintendent Brian Costello. The evacuees will stay there until further notice and school will be in session, Costello said.
Delaney said as firefighters responded, they could see what they were up against.
“On our way, we already saw fire coming from a window on the fifth floor,” Delaney said. “Firefighters had their hands full. There are hundreds of people who live in this building.
“Not only did they have to go in and extinguish the fire but go in and rescue many of the occupants as possible. They did that and they extinguished the fire,” Delaney noted.
Coincidentally, city firefighters were in training Tuesday regarding high rise fires, Delaney said.
“Fortunately, all the firefighters have extensive training,” the chief explained. “At Wilkes-Barre Fire Headquarters today, firefighters were in a class about high rise firefighting. Our firefighters did an impeccable job here. Two people didn’t make it out, but 150 to 160 did without injury. They did a remarkable job, and we are thankful for their efforts and the three other departments who assisted us.”
The Wilkes-Barre Housing Authority owns and manages the building.
After the fire was extinguished, Lisman and Deputy Coroner Dan Hughes removed the bodies from the fifth floor.
As tenants were relocated to the shelter at the high school, firefighters checked vacant apartments for missing pets and to gather medications.
Delaney said the city fire inspector and state police fire marshal are investigating the cause of the blaze.