'All is ash'

Posted: July 08, 2014

NAPOLEON DIVINE, pastor of Christ International Baptist Church, had considered scrapping the Independence Day-themed sermon he'd planned for yesterday's service after a Saturday-morning house fire killed four children and devastated their close-knit community of West African immigrants.

The immediate - almost overwhelming - show of support for the victims convinced him otherwise.

Divine said his original message about the "blessing of America" still applied, even against the backdrop of a deadly tragedy just feet from the doors of his Southwest Philadelphia church.

"When I saw the outpouring of love from people across the board, irrespective of race and ethnicity - white, black, Hispanic, Indian, you name it - I said, 'I don't really have to change my message,' " said Divine, a Liberian immigrant who came to the United States in 1981. "This is a blessing. Total strangers responding. They feel our pain. Look at the love. You don't have to carry this burden alone."

City officials had not released a cause for the three-alarm fire, which broke out about 2:40 a.m. Saturday on Gesner Street near 65th in Southwest Philly's Elmwood section. It took 100 firefighters about 90 minutes to get it under control.

Twin sisters Maria and Marialla Bowah, 4, Patrick Sanyeah, 4, and Taj Jacque, 1 month, died in the fast-moving blaze. At least 10 homes were destroyed or damaged and 42 people were displaced, according to the Red Cross.

Police say the twins' mother, Dewen Bowah, was able to save three of her daughters, but was then forced out of the house.

"We lost four precious lives," Mayor Nutter said Saturday. "I can only pray that their pain was not long and they did not truly feel and experience the intensity of this fire and flames."

Neighbors suspect the fire was sparked by an errant firecracker that landed on a porch couch, but fire officials hadn't released any information to support that theory.

Roselyn Gray, the twins' godmother and a member of Christ International, said she last saw the girls on Wednesday and had planned to pick them up last weekend to take them to the playground or shopping. But she got too busy.

"They would sing to you," Gray said. "In the neighborhood, you call one, the both of them come, at all times. They were always together. Never apart."

Gray said she heard about the fire Saturday evening.

"I can't believe it. I can't!" she sobbed.

Food, clothing, games and other donations for the victims are piling up so quickly in Divine's church that he is asking for more volunteers to help organize it. It started Saturday with two tables. Yesterday, the room was filling up by the minute.

"Men's and boys' stuff over there. That's going to be a women's table. Books and toys at the other end," said church member Darron Jones, who was overseeing the operation.

Dahn Dennis, president of the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania, said fire officials will be walking the block at 3 p.m. today and installing smoke detectors in homes that don't have them. The home where the four children died had been equipped with smoke detectors last year. At 5 p.m., the church will form committees to provide social services and financial support for the victims, Dennis said.

Solomon Johnson, who lived next door to the children who died, was leaning against the stone church yesterday, wearing donated clothes and a slightly dazed look. He seemed unsure of what to do next, as if someone had pressed the "reset" button on his life.

"Zero," Johnson responded, when asked what remained of his belongings. "What I worked for, 13 years. All is ash."

Johnson, who arrived from Sierra Leone in 2001, has worked in the food-processing industry and for agencies that help people with physical and mental disabilities. He said he was sleeping on the couch when the fire broke out. It spread almost instantaneously.

"I couldn't do nothing," Johnson said.

Johnson said his brother, Milton Musa, was able to save at least two children who were hanging from a window. He said Musa stood under the window to break their fall.

"The girls jumped on his back," he said.

Lillian Rodriguez was shocked yesterday to return from vacation in North Carolina and find charred homes on her block. She initially broke down crying, thinking that her house had been destroyed. But she was comforted to hear that it sustained mostly water damage.

And her family found a fire survivor - Layla, her calico cat.

"We were hoping she ran to the back of the house and she did," said Rodriguez's daughter-in-law, Chrissy Monroe, as she carried the tri-colored cat back to her car. "She was right there, coming to the door. She smells like a lot of smoke and she's shivering, but she's good."

For Johnson, however, the silver lining is faint. He survived, but that's about it.

Johnson's brother, Jacob Pearce, saw him standing on 65th Street yesterday afternoon. All he could do was pat his back and recite the words that have gotten men and women through every crisis imaginable. There was nothing else to be said.

"It's going to be OK," Pearce said. "Everything is going to be all right."

On Twitter: @wbender99

Blog: ph.ly/DailyDelco

Staff writer Morgan Zalot contributed to this report.

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