'You let four kids burn into ashes'

Patrick Sanyeah, the father of two children who died in Saturday's fire, protesting with other residents from the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood where a fire in the 6500 block of Gesner Street killed four children early Saturday, July 5. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Patrick Sanyeah, the father of two children who died in Saturday's fire, protesting with other residents from the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood where a fire in the 6500 block of Gesner Street killed four children early Saturday, July 5. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer ) (Steven M. Falk)
Posted: July 09, 2014

Patrick Sanyeah was in the thick of the angry protest for much of the afternoon. But unlike most others, his loss was deeply personal and devastating.

Two of the victims in Saturday's fatal fire in Southwest Philadelphia were his children, Patrick, 4, and Taj Jacque, who was less than two months old.

"The fire department right here, you let four kids burn into ashes," Patrick Sanyeah said during Monday's protest, wiping away tears as he chanted with the crowd.

City officials defended the fire department's response -- in a community meeting, on the street ravaged by Saturday's fire and, at day's end, in a news conference that drew Mayor Nutter, the fire commissioner, and others.

But in the neighborhood shaken by the weekend's tragedy, few people seemed convinced. The crowd loudly and at times angrily demanded answers, its numbers surging and waning depending on the time of day and the location.

One woman suffered a seizure on Woodland Avenue, the scene of one tense gathering, and was taken to the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She was in stable condition Monday night

Another woman, who some identified as Elenor Jacque, the mother of the two boys, was pushed to the ground by an officer as she ran toward a man being taken away by police. Shaken, she was comforted by a group of onlookers and left the street soon after.

Police formed a line in front of the fire station as the crowd quieted through the night. At one point, a group walked back to Gesner Street, the scene of the fire, and stood on the porches of the ravaged houses, clapping, chanting and lighting candles on the steps.

"We feel like we have no rights," said Fifi Davis, 19, whose aunt Dewen Bowah was home when the fire broke out in her house on Gensler Street. Bowah managed to get three children out but could not reach the two boys and her twin daughters, Maria and Marialla Bowah, 4, who both perished.

"Everybody is frustrated," Davis said.

Some were dismayed by the evening's events.

"This is not Gesner Street, not at all," said block captain Tyrone Watson. "Let us lay the dead to rest. The families displaced, let's get them settled."

By 9 p.m., Sanyeah and a group of friends and relatives were speaking with a battalion chief and Mike Resnick, the director of public safety, who handed out business cards and promised protesters he would meet with them to speak about their concerns.

Police remained on hand as firefighters clustered at the door of the station, watching the protest die down.

"I understand they want to be heard -- that's their right," said Lt. Joe Galie of the 12th District. "They have every right to peacefully protest. But the fire department may have to get out."

awhelan@philly.com 215-854-2961 @aubreyjwhelan

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