Chester, PA "Great Leopard" Fire, Apr 1971

The "Great Leopard" Building


Chester -- City fire officials were harassed by false alarms received while firemen were fighting a general alarm blaze Tuesday.
"We had so many false reports it was difficult to keep track of them. There must have been a dozen false alarms at least," Fire Chief JOSEPH LANDINO said.
County fire units, with city firemen to assist them, answered the false alarms.
"This is real hell," LANDINO said. "We are with our backs against the wall with a tremendous fire and some jokers are reporting false alarms. What is the matter with people today?" LANDINO asked.
Someone pulled the fire alarm box at Penn and Patterson Sts., opposite the burning building, just before 9 p.m. Smoke was so dense in the area that visibility was limited to several feet.
A person moved up to the fire alarm box, pulled the lever and reported the false alarm while firemen worked in the area. LANDINO was only a short distance away and was shocked by the brazen action.
LANDINO then ordered police to clear spectators from the area. Ropes were put in position to establish fire lines and to keep spectators away from the working area.
City firemen were in service for more than 8 hours. The iniitial alarm was received at 5:17 p.m. A second alarm was recorded at 5:23 p.m. when more equipment was needed. The general alarm was sounded at 5:34 p.m.
It was the first time in more than a year a general alarm has occurred. The last occurred during the fire that destroyed Penn Steel Castings Co.
The general alarm ended at 1:07 a.m. Firemen were recalled to the location about 3 p.m. when smouldering embers rekindled into open flame.
Several minor fires occurred while city firemen battled the big blaze. A fire occurred in the early evening at the rear of a former garage building, near 9th and Norris Sts. A fire occurred in a vacant house in the 300 block Montgomery St. at 11:38 p.m.


Chester -- "It was amazing how fast the fire and smoke filled the building."
These were the words of WILLIAM COOPERSMITH, a short time after he and an employe, JAMES DILL, led about 30 youngsters out of the Big C Rollerdrome and to safety.
COOPERSMITH said he was inside his office, located in the southwest corner of the building on the upper level, when the fire occurred.
COOPERSMITH has maintained a business base of operations in the 80 year old structure. His father, the late JACK W. COOPERSMITH, opened his first office in the building.
"I have a certain fondness for Chester and I intend to relocate my offices here," COOPERSMITH, who is a member of the Delaware County Prison Board, said. He is a former Democratic City Chairman.
According to COOPERSMITH, about 30 children were in the rink taking skating lessons when someone began beating on his door.
"At first I thought it was someone trying to create a nuisance and I was annoyed. When I opened the door to check, a youngster said they had smelled smoke in the rink," COOPERSMITH said.
He said he ran back into his office and telephoned the police station to report a fire. At about the same time someone pulled a fire alarm box outside the building at Penn and Patterson.
COOPERSMITH told DILL to get the children out of the building. Two women instructors, MRS. IDA GRANDEE, of Linwood, and MRS. EMMA SMITH, of 833 Elsinore Place, were with the children on the rink.
The adults helped the children get down a flight of stairs and out the main entrance. Most of the youngsters kept their shoe skates on and went down the stairs by holding onto railings. Some were skating around outside the building as fire equipment began arriving.
COOPERSMITH returned to the building. He remembered a prized photograph of his deceased father. He ran upstairs and got it from his desk.
"It was unbelievable. The smoke was so thick I could barely see. I guess I was lucky to get back down," he said. Employes returned to the offices after the fire was brought under control, about five hours later, and retrieved valuables within several safes.
ADALINE MANCINI, who had been secretary-treasurer of Great Leopard Corp. since its formation in 1936, had gone to dinner just before the fire occurred. COOPERSMITH said office records accumulated during 35 years of business were destroyed in the fire.
COOPERSMITH said the 41,000 sq. ft. building was first used as a food market and skating rink by his father. He said it was the second supermarket opened in the United States and remained in continuous use until the late 1950's.
He said a hardwood floor was installed over a concrete floor used in the textile mill. It served as the surface for skating. COOPERSMITH said the skating rink was the largest indoor rink in Pennsylvania and had served as the site for many U.S. Regional and Pennsylvania Championship skating competitions.
Since the university closed its operations, a new building was opened in Middletown, the ground floor area has been used as a cultural center for neighborhood youth.
COOPERSMITH said he has made building space available for the cultural center without charge. He said he provided the center with heat, electric, water and sewer facilities at no cost.

Delaware County Daily Times Chester Pennsylvania 1971-04-21