Unsung heroes no more

Posted: June 09, 2014

IT HAS BEEN TWO years since the Thomas W. Buck Hosiery factory burned in Kensington, killing firefighters Lt. Robert Neary, 59, and Daniel Sweeney, 25.

In February, a grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against Nahman and Michael Lichtenstein, the New York father-and-son investors who owned the empty 19th century building and allowed it to fall prey to squatters and neglect.

So the Lichtensteins will never wear orange jumpsuits in punishment for the catastrophe that took the lives of two good men. At least the families of Neary and Sweeney - who have never received so much as an expression of condolence from the Lichtensteins - have civil suits pending against the slumlords.

If there's a God, the action will wipe out the Lichtensteins. Still, as Marian Sweeney - mother of Daniel Sweeney - says, "We don't need money; we need our son back. But we don't want the Lichtensteins to profit in any way from the sale of that site."

The families could use more than that cold comfort.

How wonderful, then, that the Mural Arts Program has just finished a new work in honor of Neary and Sweeney. Located on a wall at 2024 E. Arizona St., just three blocks from York Street, where the men died, it features their smiling portraits:

Neary, white-haired and handsome in a blue Philadelphia Fire Department shirt, with red suspenders; Sweeney, in full gear, eyes twinkling.

The portraits - framed by columns that echo the architecture of a nearby historic bank - were rendered from existing photos, and they are lovely. Surrounding the portraits are symbols of the trade: an ax and ladder, fire truck, emblems representing the companies that responded to the disaster that day.

It's as much a tribute to the city's modest brotherhood of first responders as it is to the men who died that day.

"We think it's delightful," says Neary's widow, Diane. "My husband loved his job and Ladder 10. He'd be thrilled to know he'd been memorialized in this way."

Marian Sweeney notes that her son was a shy young man who'd be both "honored and appalled" that his likeness graces such a prominent piece of art.

"He was a quiet, content person," she says, as are the rest of her family members. "So this would sort of embarrass him. But everything is different now. We think the mural is beautiful and impressive."

The mural "hangs" high on an outside wall of a studio owned by East Kensington artist Jesse Gardner. It can be seen from the Market-Franford El on the trestle that crosses York Street.

Gardner designed the work with artist David McShane, a Mural Arts staffer. It was then reproduced by artist Kien Nguyen, with help from Neary and Sweeney's loved ones, friends and colleagues.

The location is both odd - the block is quiet, without a lot of through-traffic - and apropos. Gardner's studio (open by appointment) features a gallery of large portraits of first responders, called "Unsung Heroes." He created them long before 9/11 gave Americans a new appreciation for those who rush into danger while the rest of us flee it.

"The first responders I know have this humbleness and humility to them" yet perform acts of heroism that the rest of us are incapable of, says Gardner.

His studio has been visited by first responders from near and far. Some linger over the portraits, share tales of those they have loved and lost - and then must excuse themselves to regain their composure. They're touched that someone has thought it important to capture on canvas what they do for a living - and as a calling.

"The people in these portraits all posed for me," says Gardner as he describes how he came to meet this captain or that new recruit. "I was able to really get to know them before painting them, and I think it shows in their eyes."

Painting portraits of Neary and Sweeney, from photos provided by their families, was difficult, he says, since the images were static, showing just one version of who they'd been. Still, he thought he had done them justice, until Sweeney's parents confessed, reluctantly, that Gardner hadn't "caught" their son in the way they'd hoped.

Recalls Gardner, "They didn't want to insult me, but I said, 'We'll fix it! You knew Danny; I didn't. His face will be up there for years. We owe it to you to get it right.'"

The Sweeneys were gratified that the image was altered to their specifications. The face they see on the wall is now the face they see every day in memory.

The families deserve more than memories, obviously. They deserve to have Neary and Sweeney with them.

Barring that, they deserve for the world to see who they lost. This mural does them proud.


The mural of Neary and Sweeney will be formally dedicated on Thursday, July 10, at 11 a.m. at 2012-24 E. Arizona St. All are welcome.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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