PHILADELPHIA — City officials say a vacant warehouse had been cited for fire code violations several times and court action was in the offing when the building was hit by a massive blaze that led to the deaths of two firefighters in a collapse at an adjacent furniture store where the flames had spread.
A city official said authorities would be looking into whether a criminal negligence case was warranted in the fire early Monday that led to the deaths of Lt. Robert Neary, 60, and firefighter Daniel Sweeney, 25, as well as injuries to two other firefighters. One remained hospitalized in guarded condition Monday night.
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of these two firefighters," Mayor Michael Nutter said. "It just hurts a great, great deal."
The blaze in the city's Kensington section started around 3:15 a.m. Monday and quickly spread. Dozens of nearby homes were evacuated and the firefighters were trying to make sure that the blaze was out at the furniture store when a wall and roof collapsed, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said.
"They were actually going back in to check and ensure that the fire was out," the commissioner said, adding that crews got to them as quickly as they could but that the rescue effort was arduous.
Both firefighters were respected members of the department and had been commended for a long list of rescues over the years, Ayers said.
Neary, a 37-year veteran of the department, served in the Army reserves from 1972 to 1982 and worked as a city police officer before joining the fire department. He is survived by his wife, two grown sons and a grown daughter. He was a mentor to young firefighters like Sweeney and had great instincts while fighting fires, said Timothy McShea, vice president of the firefighters union.
"He was just a great guy, knew the job very well," McShea said. "He's like one of these old school guys. They just have a second sense about them."
Sweeney, who was single, is survived by his parents. His father is recently retired fire Capt. David Sweeney.
"He was a good young lad," McShea said. "Danny was a young, aggressive firefighter."
The cause of the blaze was not immediately determined.
City officials said the warehouse property's corporate owner had been cited three times since November and a fourth citation was issued after a March 29 inspection following a community meeting. Officials said the city was preparing to take the owner to court as required after the first three violations and that, separately, a sheriff's sale was expected this summer because of about $72,000 in unpaid city and water tax bills.
Fran Burns, commissioner of the city's Licenses and Inspections department, said the owner, York Street Property Development, had a zoning permit good through July 2013 for an 81-unit development on the site.
"This isn't a landowner or property owner we couldn't find; this is someone who had a very active interest in the property and has an active and open zoning permit for development," Burns said. "I don't understand, when you have a zoning permit for an 81-unit development, that you don't understand your responsibility to have a secure property."
David Feuerstein of the New York-based law firm Herrick, Feinstein, representing York Street Property Development, called the fire "an unspeakable tragedy."
"Our condolences and heartfelt prayers go out to the families of Lt. Neary and Firefighter Sweeney, and to their grieving colleagues at the Philadelphia Fire Department," he said in a statement. "We are cooperating, and will continue to do so, with all law enforcement and government agencies as they investigate this fire."
Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, said officials will be talking to the district attorney about whether a criminal negligence prosecution is warranted.
Gillison said city officials were to meet Tuesday with attorneys for the owners, whom they identified as Nahman Lichtenstein, along with Yechiel and Michael Lichtenstein. Burns said the owners, who through York Street Property Development and another firm, were linked to perhaps 34 other properties in the city. A message left for a Philadelphia law firm that city officials said represented them was not returned Monday evening, nor was a message left for Nahman Lichtenstein.
Michael Lichtenstein told the blog Hidden Daily Philadelphia last month that a development planned for the warehouse had stalled because of the economy. He said he wasn't sure who was responsible for managing and maintaining the property, but that "the building is being kept up."
Residents, however, tried to seal up the building themselves, cleaned litter around the premises and reported their concerns to the city over the past year, said Jeff Carpineta, president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association. They also wrote a letter several months ago to an attorney listed in public records as the contact for the owners, Carpineta said. The structure was repeatedly left open and unsecure, he said.
"The building was becoming an anxiety because a lot of us were concerned about the building burning down," he said.
Carpineta blasted city officials for not taking the initiative to secure the premises. The cost would have been minuscule compared with the damage wrought by the blaze, he said.
"At what point does the city say, 'We need to do what's right?'" Carpineta said.
Gillison, however, said the city was taking action in light of the complaints and violations but officials had to follow the law in doing so.
As the early-morning fire spread from the warehouse, flames poured from the windows as crews doused water on it from all sides. Hot embers from the main fire blew to nearby structures, causing small fires that damaged six homes. Fire trucks lined the nearby streets for hours after the blaze was brought under control. Bricks and debris were scattered on the roads surrounding the fire scene, where much of the warehouse had collapsed.
Police began banging on the doors of nearby homes shortly after the fire was reported. No injuries were reported among the displaced. The Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania set up a shelter and offered aid to about two dozen people who had been forced from their homes. By 10:30 a.m., most had left to see if their homes had been damaged.
Twenty-nine minutes after the fire was brought under control, an alarm went out for the trapped firefighters. Ayers said the department last lost a firefighter in 2006. The last time it lost multiple firefighters on a single call was 2004. Nutter ordered flags in the city to be flown at half-staff for 30 days.
"We're getting a lot of support, just as we give service to our citizens, they're serving us right now," Ayers said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.