Civil, criminal action possible against warehouse owners in fatal Kensington fire

Though the massive fire fanning out from the former Thomas W. Buck Hosiery Complex in Kensington escalated quickly – first responders arrived at 3:13 a.m. and a fifth alarm was called in less than an hour – officials had wrested the blaze under control by 5 a.m. yesterday.

Nearly an hour later, four firefighters went back inside the neighboring Giamari Furniture and Bedding building, which was also extinguished after being set aflame by radiant heat or windblown embers. “It was a routine check,” said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers.

But only two of the men emerged alive. An interior wall collapsed, taking the roof along with it, and the firefighters were buried under several tons of debris. Firefighters Francis Cheney and Pat Nally were the first pulled from the rubble and are both expected to survive, while Lt. Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney remained trapped for over an hour.

Sixty-year-old Neary, a 38-year department veteran, former Philadelphia police officer and father of three, died on the scene. He was the recipient of numerous accolades, including one for rescuing a pregnant woman from the second floor of a burning building in 2000.

Daniel Sweeney, 25, succumbed to his injuries at Temple University Hospital. He had already received two commendations in his six-year career for several risky rescues. “This is a young man who had a very, very bright future following in the footsteps of his father, a retired captain,” Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison said.

Mayor Michael Nutter also offered his condolences via speakerphone from a Tallahassee, Fla. summit.

Imminent danger

Portions of the warehouse’s walls were still crumbling yesterday afternoon, kicking up clouds of dust stories high. Wind carried a fine mist from a mounted hose still trained on the building, where billows of black smoke rose.

Thirty-one homes were evacuated overnight due to the fast-moving flames. “The police was knocking at our door telling us to get out of the house because flames were coming our way,” nearby resident Gisela Zayas said. “The whole building was in flames, the walls were collapsing. It was real bad. Then the wind started.”

Zayas was allowed back in her house about an hour later, but still did not have electricity as of noon yesterday.

She and other neighbors said the building was a tragedy waiting to happen. Last October, another large structure burnt to the ground a mere block away. “We said since the beginning when the other building burnt down that this one would be next,” Gisela Zayas said.

“It keeps happening – that one burned down. There was one at Frankford and Thompson. A lot here around 12 years ago, one on Front Street last year,” said a neighbor who asked only to be identified as Jason. “They’re going like crazy.”

Eric Bennett was one of the first neighbors on the scene, narrowly missing the wall collapse. “It was big news when it was just on fire,” he said. “Then it turned into a tragedy.”

Negligence, but who’s to blame?

Neighborhood activist Christopher Sawyer remembers when Brooklyn-based investors Yeichiel and Michael Lichtenstein purchased the property in 2009, appearing before the East Kensington Neighborhood Association and winning community support to convert the warehouse into 81 apartment units. “They got approved by the ZBA and went on their way,” Sawyer said. “That was last the neighbors ever saw of them.”

After noticing broken entry seals about six months ago, Sawyer conducted his own site visit. He drew up boilerplate complaints based on what he saw and encouraged neighbors to send them to 311 and L&I.

The eerily prescient lists of unsealed entryways, fire hazards and walls in danger of collapse were met with inaction, Sawyer said. “Most of the complaints were closed as unfounded or given some kind of, ‘Oh yeah, we’re looking into it,’ kind of response.”

City officials dispute that account and instead pointed the finger at the property owners. “The 311 complaints were not ignored, they were acted on,” Gillison said yesterday, adding that an investigator was sent out six days after the first call and issued a citation Nov. 2. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t drop the ball and we did not.”

But, as is the case with many property owner disputes, the ball remained in the air for a frustratingly long period of time. “The process is too familiar,” Gillison admitted. “We cite the owner. They do nothing. We give them 30 days. We go back out and see if they’ve done anything. We issue another citation and give them another 30 days.”

By January, L&I had reached its limit of three citations – and three 30 day waiting periods – and issued a judgment in March to take the non responsive owners to sheriff sale, which Gillison estimated would happen in June or July.

The city also placed multiple liens on the property since 2009, as the property owners currently owe the city nearly $60,000, plus $12,000 to the Water Department, according to the Philadelphia Revenue Department.

“In each of the matters the owners failed, which is why we’re going to court,” Gillison said.

He said that, in the future, the Nutter administration hopes to deter landlords from letting their properties fall into neglect by pursuing harsher penalties. “That’s why the mayor asked me to talk to the District Attorney, to look at that indifference and see if it constitutes reckless indifference or criminal negligence,” he said. The administration is meeting with the property owners’ lawyer tomorrow.

But Sawyer insisted that, if action was taken, it was not noticeable to those in the neighborhood. “On the ground, nothing happened. Maybe L&I sent someone out to do a drive-by, but that was it.”

“Now they have a destroyed city block, a furniture store burned up … These two firefighters could be alive right now if L&I took action. They’re in a denial-a-thon. And they’re going to be running that race all week,” he said.

As far as the fire’s cause, there may not be any answers for some time, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said yesterday. “It’s going to be a long, arduous investigation based on the collapse and the danger of entering the building to gather evidence.” He said that the site was too hot for the fire marshal to even begin to search for a cause.

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