Protest Shows Anger, Frustration After Fatal SW Phila. Fire

Will Bunch et al., Philly, July 8, 2014

A combustible mixture of anger and grief nearly boiled over on a Southwest Philadelphia street corner in the summer heat last night in a tense standoff between a long, blue line of cops and roughly 200 residents protesting what they claimed was a slow response to Saturday’s fire that killed four children on Gesner Street.

The confrontation–first outside a fire station on 65th Street near Woodland Avenue and later on the narrow rowhouse street where eight homes were destroyed, and where the acrid stench of smoke still hung heavy–led to at least two arrests, as witnesses said some protesters tossed water bottles while the crowd chanted, “We want answers!”

At least 50 Philadelphia police officers flooded the neighborhood, brandishing batons at times, as the civic unrest on or near the main artery of Woodland Avenue teetered on the edge of chaos for several hours.

Witnesses said the tensions flared shortly after residents of the tight-knit, predominantly Liberian community emerged from a church meeting about the fire at 6:30 p.m. Some of them joined protesters already sitting in the street.

After the protesters had been sitting in front of the fire station for about a half-hour, a ladder truck tried to pull out of the garage. The protesters shouted, “Murder!” and “12th District murderers!” at the height of the mounting tensions.

The officers pulled out their batons, swinging them at the protesters as they surged forward. {snip}


Liberian Association of Pennsylvania president Dahn Dennis tried to calm the increasingly angry protesters, saying the chaotic demonstration was not the way to get the answers they want from the city.


Later last night, Mayor Nutter held a news conference at City Hall in which he said some residents of the Elmwood section of Southwest Philadelphia, where the three-alarm fire occurred, were spreading “lies and innuendo” that mischaracterized the city’s response.

The fire broke out at roughly 2:40 a.m. Saturday, in the midst of the July Fourth celebrations, and reportedly spread quickly through wooden front-porch overhangs.

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said the first 9-1-1 call came in at 2:44 a.m., and then firefighters on a ladder truck dispatched themselves to the scene at 2:46. At 2:51, an engine arrived. Sawyer said the engine had been on a car-fire call before arriving on the scene but still made it there in fewer than five minutes.

The department has not released tapes of the 9-1-1 call but said it plans to.

It took roughly 100 firefighters about 90 minutes to put out the blaze, which displaced 42 residents and claimed the lives of young Patrick as well as twin sisters Maria and Marialla Bowah, 4, and 1-month-old Taj Jacque.

As the neighborhood–largely immigrant families from West Africa–continued to mourn, questions also began to echo across the narrow streets.

“We pay taxes, too,” said Sanyeah, the grieving father. “[The city] doesn’t care about us; they let four kids die.”

Sawyer said that despite some lag time because the initial report had been for a rubbish fire, the first unit was on the scene within three minutes.


At the news conference last night, Nutter said it was “devastating to every one of us that four children died in the fire” and promised that officials would investigate.

Sawyer, the fire commissioner, gave the following timeline of response:

* 2:44 a.m. First call to fire communications.

* 2:46 a.m. Dispatch for rubbish fire.

* 2:47 a.m. Second call, regarding four houses on fire. Same time Ladder 4 was calling fire communications saying someone was saying four houses were on fire.

* 2:49 a.m. Ladder 4 on location.

* 2:51 a.m. Engine 40 on location, after previously responding to a call about a car fire.

Sawyer added: “There’s no way, no how, that these members would not respond” in a timely fashion. “They’re sworn to save lives and save property.”

Nutter, Sawyer and Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison all denounced reports that firefighters took too long to respond. They said the firefighters on the ladder truck that responded to the scene at 2:46 a.m. dispatched themselves before the response was even entered into the computer system.

“The primary reason that we are here this evening is to completely and absolutely refute any idea that there was some kind of a supposed significant delay,” the mayor said. “That’s just not the case.”

He said some “individuals with their own agendas” were spreading inaccurate information.


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