ATLANTIC CITY — Thick smoke and construction changes made a tough job more difficult as firefighters battled a fire Saturday night, officials said.

Demolition began Monday to the four-story rooming house at 3615 Winchester Ave., and is expected to take three to five days. But it was additions made years ago that concerned those who fight fires.

“There were all kinds of changes in the construction,” Fire Chief Dennis Brooks said of the four-story building that at one time was a smaller residential home. “Windows previously there that were boarded up, hallways partitioned off, all kinds of changes.”

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Narrow hallways made it difficult for firefighters in full gear to maneuver inside. The fire conditions and some rooms packed and used for storage increased the problems.

“To have that blinding smoke and all cut up like it is, we’re just lucky things worked out like they did,” Fire Union President Chris Emmell said of no major injuries in the blaze.

Alex Tjoumakaris — whose wife is listed as the building’s owner — said there have been no changes in the four years he and his wife have run the building. His father-in-law previously had the property for about 20 years, and he was not aware of changes.

The Fire Department is not advised of changes allowed through code enforcement, Brooks said.

“The only time we have anything to say is for new construction when it’s a commercial residence,” he said.

Licensing and Inspections Director Dale Finch did not immediately reply to code enforcement questions. But, during a brief visit to the scene Monday, he said that damage from the fire was so severe that the construction official had declared the property an emergent hazard. A few hours later, the area was blocked from traffic as demolition.

The project is expected to take three to five days, and will close Winchester Avenue from Albany to Hartford. Traffic will be routed to Atlantic Avenue.

Emmell said the large fire also illustrated how important a fully staffed department is. A federal grant has helped the department be at 243 members, with four platoons of about 55 members each.

The firehouses were emptied to respond to Saturday’s blaze, with another two platoons called in, the chief said. There were about 60 firefighters on scene Saturday night, Brooks said. Another 20 firefighters or so were sent to the firehouses to answer any other calls that might have come in. Standby equipment also had to be used.

Engine 7 — which had been out of service Saturday night — was called in on overtime to say at the scene overnight in case of flare ups.

“Manpower is what saves lives,” Emmell said.

Displaced resident Terrance Zeuner stopped by the area but wasn’t able to get inside. He said it was just as well.

"My bike was just melted to nothing," he said. "You just have to turn the page."

Residents being put up at the Travelodge in Egg Harbor Township have bonded, he said.

"Some of us didn't even know each other before," he said. "Now, I'm learning Jamaican from one guy."

The Red Cross is putting up 17 residents at the hotel for seven days.

After that, Tjoumakaris said he has other properties in the city, and may be able to put some people up there, but that room is limited. Several residents told him they are already making arrangements for new apartments.

He was just glad everyone was OK.

“I got worried when I arrived (Saturday night) and there were some people unaccounted for,” he said. “I was making calls like crazy.”

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More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.

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