Protesters seek answers to response to fatal fire

The protest escalated after 7 p.m. when a ladder truck tried to leave a fire station house. Clashes led to a number of arrests. Earlier, residents had challenged Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer over how long it took firefighters to report to the blaze.
The protest escalated after 7 p.m. when a ladder truck tried to leave a fire station house. Clashes led to a number of arrests. Earlier, residents had challenged Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer over how long it took firefighters to report to the blaze. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 09, 2014

Residents of Southwest Philadelphia turned out in force Monday night to demand answers after the weekend fire that killed four children, at times sparking an angry outcry that drew scores of police officers and set the neighborhood on edge.

The protest, which resulted in several clashes and led to a number of arrests, followed an afternoon community meeting at which residents challenged the fire commissioner over how long it took firefighters to respond to Saturday's devastating early morning fire.

Frustration over the Fire Department's response escalated throughout the evening as the crowd moved from the community meeting to a nearby fire station and then back to the scene of the fire, on the 6500 block of Gesner Street.

Residents, some wearing T-shirts that bore photos of the children, chanted "Liars" outside the fire station. The protest escalated after 7 p.m. as a ladder truck apparently tried to move out of the station house. When several people lay down on the street, police moved in and grabbed them by their legs to pull them back.

Other officers pushed back the crowd, which dispersed to nearby Woodland Avenue. Police, batons in hand, pursued the protesters, some of whom hurled water bottles. Dozens of officers formed a blue wall to keep the crowd in check. At one point, fire commanders went into the crowd on Gesner to answer questions.

The tension capped a day when the Fire Department tried to address rumors of a delayed response that began circulating in the neighborhood just hours after the fire.

Mayor Nutter and Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer, at a hastily called news briefing in City Hall on Monday night, defended the department's response.

"The firefighters did their job. They're not the bad people here. It wasn't a lack of service," Nutter said. "I will not tolerate under any circumstances incorrect information, allegations, innuendos, or lies suggesting that members of PFD did anything less than serve admirably in their service."

Fire dispatch records show that the department spent crucial minutes deploying resources as if responders were headed to a rubbish fire rather than a fast-moving blaze that had begun to consume houses, including the one in which seven children were trapped.

Records show the first call came in just before 2:45 a.m. for a couch on fire on a porch. A neighbor, Jeff Boone, said he called 911 after seeing the couch. The operator asked him for the address, but did not press for more details.

Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, said any inference that the initial report of a rubbish fire affected response was wrong. "Did that affect or slow the response? Answer: no," he said.

The records show - and the commissioner agreed - that the ladder truck at the nearby station was not ordered to the scene in the first dispatch because of the report being of a rubbish fire.

Adding to the challenges, when the initial call was received, the fire engine assigned to the nearby station was responding to a car fire that had been reported at 2:24 a.m.

The first firefighters to respond from the station house were in a ladder truck, which, unlike a fire engine, carries no water. For a structural fire, a ladder and an engine work in tandem. While ladder trucks can connect to hydrants, the water pressure is greatly lessened.

Sawyer addressed the department's response on Monday during an afternoon visit to Gesner during which firefighters installed smoke alarms and distributed fire prevention materials.

At a community meeting Monday afternoon, Sawyer was repeatedly challenged on the department's response time. Sawyer, who was recently appointed, said he did not know why the fire had originally been deemed less serious than it was.

"For whatever reason, the information they received made them believe it was a rubbish fire," he said. "As more calls came in, they upgraded it."

He said incorrect rumors had spread along the block and through the neighborhood that 30 minutes passed before fire engines with water arrived.

"It doesn't take 30 minutes to respond to anything," he said.

Sawyer said firefighters had received threats and "unkind words" since the fire. "They didn't do anything wrong," he said. "They gave their heart and soul. They did the best they could do."

At the evening news conference with Nutter and other officials, Sawyer again defended the department's response. "These members see these same kids walk by the station every single day," he said. "Their hearts are broken. There is no way no how they would not respond in a timely manner to save life."

Fire Department records indicate that Boone's 911 call was transferred to the department's call center at 2:45:01 a.m. Forty-three seconds later, the call was entered into the system as a rubbish fire by a call-taker and sent to a dispatcher.

Because ladder trucks do not report to trash fires, the firefighters stationed around the corner were not immediately called to respond, the records show. Instead, a fire engine based at a station two miles away was sent.

If the fire had originally been deemed more serious, the firefighters in the ladder truck at the nearby station would have been deployed immediately, which could have permitted rescue attempts, one high-ranking department official said. The engine that was at the car fire could also have been redeployed sooner, the official said.

Sawyer said he did not know what process dispatch workers use to distinguish between rubbish and dwelling fires, or whether the dispatcher in this instance had pressed Boone for details and asked, for example, where the burning couch was.

Peter Crespo, an executive chief with the department, said officials were reviewing the conversation between the initial caller and the dispatcher.

At 2:48:20, three minutes after the initial report - and after more calls from neighbors - the dispatcher upgraded the call to a dwelling fire and began deploying more resources, the records show.

Boone said he ran to the firehouse as the fire on the couch's arm spread to the porch's awning and then to other porches.

He said that firefighters were "gearing up" when he reached the house, but that by the time they made it to the street, the fire had began to consume other houses.

Sawyer said firefighters at the station house, responding to Boone, called communications at 2:47:24 and asked to be placed into service.

The records show that the firefighters assigned to the ladder truck stationed around the corner made it to the scene at 2:49:02, about four minutes after the call. The fire engine arrived at 2:51, about six minutes after the call.

Crespo said the 911 call led to dispatch within 60 to 90 seconds, the national standard. By 2:55 a.m., a battalion chief had arrived and radioed communications that the fire had spread to 10 homes.

Three 4-year-olds - twin sisters Maria and Marialla Bowah, and Patrick Sanyeah - died in the fire, as did Taj Jacque, who was less than 7 weeks old.

The twins' mother, Dewen Bowah, 41, was home when the fire started, police said. She got three other children, all daughters, out of the house, but could not reach the four victims before she was forced to jump from a second-floor window, according to police.

The two boys' mother, Elenor Jacque, 21, was not in the house when the fire broke out.


mnewall@phillynews.com

215-854-2759 @MikeNewall

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