December 24, 1995
Web posted at: 11:30 a.m. EST
PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Twenty-three gorillas, orangutans and other primates died in an early morning fire at the Philadelphia Zoo's primate house Sunday.
Among the dead primates were six western lowland gorillas, three Bornean orangutans, four white-handed gibbons (one of which was a rare albino gibbon) and 10 lemurs. All are endangered species.
The animals probably died of smoke inhalation and were not burned, said fire Commissioner Harold Hairston. The small fire was confined to a 30-foot-by-30-foot section of a ceiling in the zoo's World of Primates building.
"It appears they died in their sleep," Hairston said.
Zoo spokeswoman Antoinette Marciolek called it "devastating." (179K AIFF sound or 179K WAV sound)
A one-story brick building housed the World of Primates exhibit. It had smoke detectors but no automatic sprinklers. A security guard first reported the fire at 12:45 a.m. and it was brought under control within 20 minutes. The cause is under investigation.
The zoo's president, Pete Hoskins, said the fire is the worst tragedy in the history of the nation's first zoo, which was founded in 1859.
"These animals are so close to human that this is really like losing members of our family," Hoskins said. "They have moods, personalities and even a sense of humor. I just can't find the words to say how all of us are feeling right now."
Zookeepers were called in to meet with a bereavement specialist from a local veterinary school.
Ten primates in another section of the building were treated for minor smoke inhalation at the zoo's hospital.
The dead primates were among the most popular of the zoo's 1,500 animals. A sign reading "It's a girl!" sits in the window of the charred building, referring to the fire's youngest victim -- an 11-month-old gorilla named Maandzi.
Also among the dead, gorillas John, Samantha and Snickers -- popular inhabitants at the zoo since they were born in 1967.
"For gorillas, they were still in the primes of their lives," Hoskins said.
The zoo will reopen Tuesday on schedule after the two-day Christmas holiday. The primate area, however, could remain closed for several months.
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