After deadly fire, debate over who was responsible for building's condition

Remains of the warehouse in Kensington destroyed by a fire early Monday that claimed the lives of two firefighters from Ladder 10. Questions remain about who is responsible for the blaze. Neighbors had complained that the old Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building was unsafe. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Remains of the warehouse in Kensington destroyed by a fire early Monday that claimed the lives of two firefighters from Ladder 10. Questions remain about who is responsible for the blaze. Neighbors had complained that the old Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building was unsafe. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer (Remains of the warehouse in Kensington)
Posted: April 11, 2012

Bill Gault, the leader of Philadelphia's firefighters union, doesn't yet know whom to blame for the five-alarm fire that killed two firefighters when the wall of a vacant mill collapsed on them Monday morning.

As funeral arrangements were being made Tuesday for Lt. Robert P. Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney, questions remained about whether the city or the building's owners should have taken responsibility for its dilapidated condition.

"The problem is the Fire Department gets caught in the middle," said Gault, president of Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. "We have to take care of the families and our members before we start doing all that."

Fed-up Kensington neighbors, who "carpet-bombed" Philadelphia's 311 line with complaints about the old Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building, said the city at first ignored their warnings of unsafe conditions and vagrants breaking in, and then acted too slowly.

The city blamed the owners - a Brooklyn family that owes the city more than $385,000 in back taxes on 31 properties - for not maintaining the mammoth structure at York and Jasper Streets, now reduced to rubble.

The owners, Nahman, Michael, and Yechiel Lichtenstein, aren't saying much; they have hired a New York law firm that declined to comment Tuesday.

Their silence may be understandable given that Mayor Nutter has suggested that they could face criminal charges.

And no one yet knows what started the fire that took the lives of Neary, 60, and Sweeney, 25, both stationed at Ladder 10.

Nutter said Tuesday "it appears to me . . . that there is some level of neglect" on the part of the Lichtensteins, who did not respond to three citations from the Department of Licenses and Inspections since Nov. 8.

The city was hoping to take them to court by May, to force them to secure the Buck building.

"We must do more," Nutter said. "The prospect of criminal prosecution should certainly be a warning signal to all . . . that we will be vigilant in our efforts."

District Attorney Seth Williams, however, took a more cautious line, noting that the cause of the blaze had not been determined.

"We'll try to find out if in fact someone started the fire," he said. "That is sometimes separate and distinct from the issue of the building itself, whether the building was just so dangerous."

He said there was precedence for charging property owners: The man who turned the basement of his rented Port Richmond home into a marijuana greenhouse was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after two firefighters died battling a blaze there in 2004.

But Williams said that more often his office ends up seizing nuisance properties, and he parried several reporters' questions about taking a tougher stance.

"It's one thing to just talk and to bark. It's my job to be fair and to do justice every day," he said. "So we have to gather information and gather evidence and move forward judiciously."

Nutter said the city was reviewing all the Lichtenstein family's properties in Philadelphia, as well as other buildings like the old Buck mill - mostly vacant factories that are symbols of the city's lost manufacturing might.

The administration released a list of 31 properties the Lichtensteins own either personally or through one of four entities, including YML Realty and YML Housing.

Municipal Court records show the various entities have been cited more than 30 times in the last 10 years for code violations and for failure to pay water and sewer bills. Many of the citations were dismissed because the owners could not be found and served with the paperwork, according to online records.

The Lichtensteins owe more than $385,000 in back property taxes on the properties, which are spread throughout the city. They owe nearly $60,000 on the Buck building - the city had filed to take the property to sheriff's sale - and more than $278,000 on 728 Market St., which they had been converting into the Thomas Lofts.

The Thomas Lofts building remains unfinished, and the lender, City National Bank, is suing the Lichtensteins and another partner for more than $12 million, according to court records.

When the Lichtensteins bought the Buck building in 2009, they quickly won the support of neighbors for their plan to convert the mill to 81 apartments.

The housing collapse halted the project, as it did for many proposals in Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez's district.

"I didn't see anything unusual with this property, unfortunately," she said.

Residents, though, had been on a mission to get the city to do something about the building. Chris Sawyer, a neighborhood activist, said he was one of 30 people who "carpet-bombed" 311 with complaints between Oct. 30 and Nov. 4, receiving a variety of responses in return.

Leo Mulvihill, a lawyer who lives in the area, said that neighbors saw vagrants breaking in, and that the building was being used as a drug den and an illegal chop shop.

"All L&I really had to do was to seal two sides of the property to keep people out of it," Sawyer said. "There is a 360-degree level of fail when it comes to the city."

But Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison said the city took action, citing the owners Nov. 8 for not maintaining and securing the building.

"That began a process that I think everyone is all too familiar with," he said. "We get information from the community, we cite the owner, the owner does nothing."

The city gives property owners three chances to fix problems before taking them to court - a process that can take six months or longer.

"We are a system of laws. . . . Each time you have a violation, you have to be given an opportunity to respond," Gillison said. "That's just the way it is here in America. The bottom line is that it's incumbent on the owner to respond."

The city can seal properties without an owner's permission, but the city places a premium on working with owners and trying to get them to take responsibility.

L&I Commissioner Fran Burns said that, for properties as large as the Buck building, the city seeks court orders before acting on its own.

"I understand that L&I has policies. I understand that there is due process afforded to the owner," Mulvihill said. "The important point is it shouldn't have deteriorated to the point it did before the city did anything about it."

Jeff Carpineta, president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association, said the city should have recognized the danger of not sealing the property.

"I think we all know now that the owners are not going to do it," he said.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who has criticized the Philadelphia School District for its failure to maintain empty schools, said the city has many more empty buildings to monitor than the district does.

"I don't think that L&I is sleeping," he said. "I just think that with the people and the number and the budget they have, the volume is overwhelming them."

As people search for answers, Gault had a suggestion.

"If the citizens want to do something," he said, "tell them to thank a firefighter."


Firefighter Funeral Services

Lt. Robert Neary: Viewing and memorial: 4 p.m. Friday, Givnish Funeral Home, 10975 Academy Rd., Philadelphia. Additional viewing: 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Givnish. Burial will be private.

Firefighter Daniel Sweeney: Viewing: 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, and 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church, 535 Rhawn St., Philadelphia. Service:

11 a.m. Saturday at St. Cecilia. Burial Saturday following service in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, 4001 W. Cheltenham Ave., Cheltenham.


Contact Troy Graham

at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

Mike Dunn of KYW-AM (1060) contributed to this article.

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