Baxter the cat reunited with his owner; Red Paw responder Andrew Wall on his rescue ladder

Updated 3:20 p.m.

Ever since the deadly 2013 Market Street incident, Philadelphia suffers a kind of collective PTSD when it comes to building collapses. But the one that happened this morning in West Philly has a happy ending.

Not only did the couple who had been sleeping inside the house survive mostly unscathed, so did their cat, who they credited with helping alert them to the coming danger.

On Wednesday around 4:45 a.m., one of the walls at a rowhome at 7 S. Ruby St. collapsed outward, triggering a cascade of additional cave-ins. But right before the first crash occurred, the male resident told NBC10, Baxter the cat began scratching him to wake him up. He then woke his wife, and the two were able to move to an area where no falling debris hit them. They were rescued by a group of friends coming home late from a night at the casino, and firefighters soon arrived on the scene to assist further.

But Baxter was still nowhere to be found.

Reports of the cat’s aid made the morning news, and were tweeted out by media covering the story soon after. Which is how Jen Leary discovered her organization was needed.

Co-founded by Leary in 2011, Red Paw is a Philly nonprofit dedicated to rescuing and helping pets displaced by fires and other disasters. The group helps save around 900 animals each year, Leary said — and on average, around two or three of them have to do with a collapse. (Yes, the aging housing stock in Philadelphia does fall down that often. The city saw around 1,100 total or partial collapses in 2014, Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections spokesperson Karen Guss told Philly Mag last year.)

While most of Red Paw’s calls come through fire department alerts, Leary said she didn’t get any notification this morning. So it wasn’t until she logged onto Twitter that she realized she could help. That was around 7:30 or 8 a.m.

“I sent one of our first responders, Andrew, over there to scout the situation and talk to L&I,” Leary told Billy Penn. “He was allowed to go in and search the porch and the first floor up until the living room, and didn’t see [the cat].” It wasn’t until the home’s residents returned from the hospital a couple hours later that progress on Baxter’s whereabouts was made. “They said he was probably up in the second floor front bedroom,” she said.

By this time, additional L&I officials and demolition crews were already on the scene, so Leary went over to the site in person to try to negotiate a cat rescue.

“It can be tricky when buildings are so badly damaged, to determine if it’s safe [to search or not],” she said, adding, “L&I has been so good to us and easy to work with. We legitimately could not do what we do without their approval.”

And yep, once she shared the news that the cat could just be hanging out in the front room, Leary managed to gain permission for her responder — a trained firefighter — to put up a ladder and check it out. This was around 10:30 or 11 a.m, she said. Lo and behold, there was Baxter, totally unharmed, “so we crawled through and brought him down.”

However, there is one thing at the building that won’t be saved: The Mural Arts mural painted on its side.

Over the past decade, the house had become a landmark of sorts thanks to the Steve Powers artwork emblazoned across its facade. Titled (and reading) “I Wanna Call You Names,” the image was one in a series of 50 “Love Letters” murals created in 2010 by Powers, whose street artist name is ESPO.

The initial collapse took out most of the image, and demolition will remove the rest. The cause of the accident is still being investigated — per L&I,’s Guss there was construction taking place on the lot next door, and the department is looking into whether that was a contributing factor.

Mural Arts spokesperson Cari Feiler Bender said it was “way too early” to say if the mural would be replaced, either there or in another location. “We have to see if and where there is funding, and talk to Steve.”

In Mural Arts 30-plus-year history, this is only the second mural ever destroyed by an unexpected collapse, Feiler Bender said. (The previous one only just happened earlier this year, when a stucco wall at Hahnemann Hospital fell down.)

Feiler Bender noted that the Love Letters series is probably the most popular installation Mural Arts has ever done, so she’s hopeful something can be worked out, but that the artwork is of course secondary to people. “We’re sad to see the mural go, but really grateful that no one got hurt! That’s the important thing,” she said.

Perhaps Powers can be convinced to work a likeness of Baxter into a replacement?

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.