Union seeks resignations of 3 top officials after fatal Kensington warehouse fire

The union’s Mike Bresnan said the tragedy was “all the result of cutbacks.” ALEX BRANDON / AP
The union’s Mike Bresnan said the tragedy was “all the result of cutbacks.” ALEX BRANDON / AP
Posted: May 24, 2012

The Philadelphia firefighters union said Tuesday that Commissioner Lloyd Ayers and his two top deputies should resign, blaming them for a lack of leadership and tactical errors that led to the deaths of two firefighters last month in Kensington.

The leaders of Local 22 said the incident commander failed to establish a “collapse zone” around the vacant, century-old mill that sparked into a spectacular five-alarm blaze April 9.

The two firefighters — Lt. Robert P. Neary, 59, and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney, 25 — were killed when one of the mill’s five-story walls fell on an adjacent furniture store, where they and two others were doing a routine check.

Mike Bresnan, a firefighter and the union’s recording secretary, said the men should have never been sent into the furniture store.

“If there’s a homeless guy living in there, then we’re paid to take risks,” he said. “But this is a case of a furniture store. What are we worried about? Some furniture burning?”

At a brief news conference outside fire department headquarters, Michael Resnick, the city’s director of public safety, said Ayers and his deputies “have our full support, 110 percent.”

Resnick called the union’s allegations “scandalous, scurrilous, bold-faced lies.”

“We had collapse zones established,” he said.

Union leaders showed blown-up photos at their afternoon news conference that they said showed firefighters within the collapse zone.

“It’s unacceptable. It’s one of the basic things of defensive operations,” Bresnan said. “It wasn’t done. There’s no evidence of it.”

Local 22 long has had a bitter relationship with departmental leaders and the Nutter administration over contract disputes and, particularly, policies that have deactivated and “browned out” fire stations.

Union leaders said a lack of manpower hampered efforts to fight the Kensington fire.

Bresnan said seven or eight alarms should have been struck that night, especially as burning embers carried on high winds started igniting surrounding homes and buildings.

He said the fire was limited to five alarms because the department exhausted nearly all of its back-up.

“It’s all the result of the cutbacks and the closings,” Bresnan said. “They don’t have the manpower and resources anymore to handle stuff like this.”

Local 22 president Bill Gault criticized Ayers — referring to him as “Car One” — for not coming to the fire scene until after the collapse.

“Incident commander should have been Car One. It wasn’t,” he said. “It starts at the top. He’s responsible for everybody.”

Gault also called for the resignation of Deputy Commissioners John Devlin, who was the incident commander that night, and Ernest Hargett, who arrived on the scene after the third alarm but did not assume command.

Bresnan said Hargett, as the higher-ranking officer, should have taken control once he arrived.

Hargett, who joined Resnick at fire headquarters Tuesday, called the union’s allegations a “travesty.” Resnick said he could not respond in detail because of ongoing investigations by a local grand jury and the Fire Marshal’s Office.

Neither responded to questions from reporters.

“This administration stands by the leadership of this fire department,” Resnick said.

A federal occupational safety investigation also is ongoing. It’s unclear if Ayers has ordered an internal query; Gault said he has not.

The cause of the fire also has not been determined.

Gault equally blamed Nutter, fire leadership, and the owners of the former Thomas W. Buck Hosiery mill for the deadly fire.

The owners — the primary one is Michael Lichtenstein of Brooklyn — did not respond after the city cited the building three times since November for code violations, following neighborhood complained about vagrants breaking in.

The city also had moved to take the building to sheriff’s sale for unpaid back taxes.

“We probably have 600 more buildings just like that in the city and what they are is death traps to us,” Gault said. “They’ve got to be taken care of. Firefighters are not expendable.”

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

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