Church goes into action to help S.W. Phila. fire survivors

The cleanup has begun on Gesner Street after Saturday morning's blaze, which killed four people and displaced at least 30.
The cleanup has begun on Gesner Street after Saturday morning's blaze, which killed four people and displaced at least 30. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 08, 2014

The day after fire ravaged a block and killed four children in Southwest Philadelphia, its cause remained undetermined as a local church opened its doors to comfort survivors, collect donations, and help an immigrant neighborhood begin to rebuild amid unthinkable loss.

"Two of them are my godchildren. My heart has broken this morning. But I still have faith in the Lord," Roselyn Gray, choir director at Christ International Baptist Church, told the congregation early Sunday afternoon. The church sits at the end of the 6500 block of Gesner Street.

The early-morning fire Saturday engulfed eight homes on that block and killed three 4-year-olds - twin sisters Maria and Marialla Bowah, and Patrick Sanyeah - and Taj Jacque, who was not quite 7 weeks old. All four were found in a second-floor bedroom of a house in the middle of the one-block street in the Mount Moriah section.

Four people injured in the fast-moving fire have been transferred to the burn unit at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, officials said. At least 30 residents were displaced.

Rumors continued to circulate Sunday that a firecracker landed on a couch on a porch and started the blaze, first reported at 2:40 a.m. as a rubbish fire, but officials said they had not pinpointed the cause.

"We have not been able to confirm those rumors at this time," Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said.

A strong scent of smoke still hung in the air Sunday afternoon, and barricades prevented onlookers from entering the block. A memorial of Spider-Man and Ironman balloons and stuffed animals took shape on the church corner at Gesner and South 65th Streets, as people arrived from the neighborhood and beyond to donate supplies. The church basement was heaped with bags of clothes, crates of water, stacks of canned goods, and other supplies.

"Did we imagine the response? No, we did not. It was overwhelming," said the Rev. Napoleon L. Divine, pastor of Christ International, which has been in the neighborhood since 2001.

Divine said the church swung into action immediately after the fire, working with the Red Cross and fire officials to coordinate donations and provide support even though the families of the children who died were not regular members of the congregation.

"I felt the same obligation to respond," Divine said, because the families are part of the community.

It's a close-knit community made up of first- and second-generation West African immigrant families, many of them from Liberia, as well as African American families. Divine came to the United States from Liberia more than 30 years ago and founded the church in 1996. The children who died came from families of Liberian immigrants.

Divine said he met Saturday with Patrick and Taj's mother, Elenor Jacque, 21, who was not home when the fire broke out.

"She was obviously distraught, so we prayed with her, and just encouraged her that she wouldn't go through this alone," he said. "We sang 'Amazing Grace,' and she cried on my shoulder."

Saturday evening, Divine presided over a candlelight vigil for the victims: "We told them they were not alone."

He and his congregation members will work with emergency officials Monday going door-to-door distributing smoke detectors. The house where the children died had two new smoke detectors, distributed last summer by firefighters in a safety outreach effort.

This is not the first time Divine has had to help the community heal from tragedy. A fire in 2008 on Elmwood Avenue near 64th Street claimed seven victims, five of them from Liberia. He gave their eulogy. The community was resilient then - and will be now, he said.

"We are in a wonderful country with wonderful people," Divine said. "Even in the midst of tragedy, there's a common humanity and that helps us."

Gray said she met the twins' mother last year when she was inviting people in the neighborhood to come to the church. She last saw them Wednesday playing on the street. The girls were always together, she said.

"They were loving children, very lively," she said.

Solomon Johnson, who lost everything in the fire but his phone and the clothes he had on, said he knew the children well.

"They called me Uncle Sol," said Johnson, who came to the United States from Sierra Leone 13 years ago and worked jobs assisting people with disabilities.

He said it was his porch couch that people on the block are saying caught fire first.

Through the afternoon, more people arrived at the church to make donations.

"It doesn't matter what church you belong to. It's the unity of the community," said Veronica Carrington, an Overbrook minister who dropped off more than 50 pairs of shoes, purses, and other items. "I didn't go to church today - I stayed at home and packed up stuff."

Teri Jones, who operates a Nigerian grocery story on Baltimore Avenue, arrived with a check. What she normally would have donated to her church, she wanted the families who lost their children to have.

"I can't wrap my head around it," she said. "I keep thinking about it - the tragedy."


ssnyder@phillynews.com

215-854-4693

@ssnyderinq

www.inquirer.com/campusinq

Staff writer Joseph DiStefano contributed to this article.

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