Owners of former factory where firefighters died remain silent as city probes begin

Posted: April 12, 2012

The owners of the broken-down, vacant former hosiery mill that collapsed and killed two firefighters during a blaze in Kensington Monday remained hunkered down Wednesday, their attorneys mute as the city and neighbors sought answers about the alleged neglect of their property and unpaid tax bills across the city.

The Lichtenstein family and their attorneys declined comment Wednesday. Only Ruth Lichtenstein, a prominent author and publisher on Orthodox Jewish life and the Holocaust, appeared briefly in front of her Brooklyn, N.Y., home and referred a CBS3 reporter to her attorneys.

In Philadelphia, Michael, Nahman and Yechiel Lichtenstein own more at least 31 properties through various entities and owe at least $385,000 in back taxes. Ruth is wife to Nahman Lichtenstein, according to CBS.

The Lichtensteins had failed to respond to three citations at the old Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building, after neighbors complained that the building was accessible to vagrants. Local activists feared a neglected fire would burn down the building some day.

On Monday morning it did, and a wall collapsed on firefighters in a neighboring furniture store, killing Lt. Robert Neary, 59, and firefighter Daniel Sweeney, 25, and injuring two others.

Through court and other records, the Lichtensteins are linked to a number of business entities based at addresses throughout Brooklyn, but centered in the heavily Hasidic Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park.

The most prominent address is a large home on a corner lot in the 300 block of Avenue I. No one answered the door there Wednesday. A man later emerged from the building and said he was the upstairs tenant.

He said the Lichtensteins were not home, he didn't know where they were, and he didn't want to answer questions. He did say, however, "I've lived here 14 years and he's the most wonderful person I've ever met," without indicating which Lichtenstein he was talking about.

Another address linked to the Lichtensteins is an office for Hamodia - "The daily newspaper of Torah Jewry," according to the sign out front. Its editor is Ruth Lichtenstein.

No one answered the buzzer there for an Inquirer reporter Wednesday. Nor did anyone answer around the corner at a dilapidated property with a yellow Hamodia newspaper box out front. The mailbox there was labeled North Flats L.L.C., and the buzzer, "Y. Lichtenstein."

CBS3 caught Ruth Lichtenstein at some point Wednesday, and she told a reporter: "I cannot answer you any questions" and "I don't think this is the time nor the place to speak about this terrible tragedy."

In Pennsylvania Wednesday, Gov. Corbett today ordered all Pennsylvania state flags in the Capitol Complex in Harrisburg and at commonwealth facilities in Philadelphia County to fly at half-staff through Saturday to the honor the two firefighters.

Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said Wednesday that the investigation would take at least a week.

"There are tons and tons of rubble in there, beams partially burned," Ayers said of the former five-story warehouse, at Jasper and York Streets. "All of those things have to be carefully examined . . . It's a very arduous process."

A task force consisting of the Fire Marshal's Office, police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was able to start looking around only on Tuesday, Ayers said, and a crane was required to remove hazardous materials.

Two other firefighters who also were in the furniture store, Francis Cheney, 43, and Pat Nally, 26, were taken to Temple University Hospital for treatment. Cheney was released Monday. Nally remains in fair condition.

On Wednesday, Cheney's mother told the Daily News about the phone call she received about 6:30 a.m. Monday from her son.

"It didn't sound like him," Pat Cheney said, speaking in the Bustleton home she shares with her husband and son.

"He said, 'There's been a terrible fire and it's still going on,' and he said, 'I don't know where the rest of them are. I think they're dead,' " she recalled.

Hers is a family of firefighters. Her husband, Frank Cheney, retired as a captain in the Fire Department in October 2003, after having served 40 years.

Pat Cheney said that her son, who is also a nurse and paramedic, had gone to New York City when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred to help with the rescue efforts. At the time, he was sitting in a nursing-school class, and when he learned of the tragedy, "he left, didn't say anything to anybody and took the next train" to New York, she said.

Viewing and funeral services are set for Friday and Saturday for Lt. Robert Neary, 60, and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney, 25, both assigned to Ladder 10.

A viewing and memorial for Neary is 4 p.m. Friday at Givnish Funeral Home, 10975 Academy Rd., in Northeast Philadelphia.

The Fire Department said today that a second viewing planned for Saturday will be for the family only and is not open to the public. Interment also will be private.

Viewings for Sweeney are set for 7 to 9 p.m. Friday and 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Cecilia Church, 535 Rhawn St., in Fox Chase.

The funeral service will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Cecilia and interment will immediately follow.

The city's Department of Licenses and Inspections on Wednesday released a list of citations issued against multiple properties owned by the Lichtensteins. The violations, which included having rubbish on a front porch at one property and not having gas heat at another, were generally for minor problems, an L&I spokeswoman said.

Community activists said they continued to be worried about other buildings like the Buck property.

"You're going to have to deal with these issues faster," said Sandy Salzman, executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corp. "Everybody in the neighborhood knew this was a disaster waiting to happen."

The most financially troubled piece of the real estate portfolio of the Lichtensteins is a Center City condo project that is now the subject of a foreclosure case involving a defaulted $11.5 million bank loan.

On Jan. 4, Yechiel Lichtenstein, pleaded with a Philadelphia judge to not place the Thomas Lofts at 728 Market St. in receivership.

Lichtenstein testified that about half of the planned 48 units were generating rental income, and that essential property expenses were being paid, sometimes out of his own pocket.

He said he never took any funds out of the project.

He also failed to present any documents to prove that anything he said was true.

"His self-serving testimony was not credible and it is rejected," Common Pleas Judge Mark I. Bernstein wrote in an opinion dated Feb. 21.

Bernstein appointed former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter receiver earlier that month.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Specter said the bank and the titleholders were scheduled to meet next week in New York for settlement talks.

Yechiel Lichtenstein is identified in Bernstein's opinion as the manager of 728 Market Street LP, which was created for the condo conversion at that location. The original plan was for the unit to be sold.

In 2009, Lichtenstein's limited partnership defaulted on an $11.5 million construction loan.

The property has been hit with numerous liens, fees, and taxes owed.

On April 28, 2011, the limited partnership arranged for a payment plan for more than $195,000 in back taxes and penalties. On Tuesday, the city said it was owed more than $278,000 for the property. It was not immediately known if the payment plan was still in effect.


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

Staff writer Dan Moberger and Daily News staff writer Julie Shaw contributed to this article.

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