Phila. fire officials release 911 tapes in deadly blaze

Homes destroyed by Saturday's fire on the 6500 block of Gesner St. in Southwest Philadelphia were opened up and inspected by city officials on Monday, July 7, 2014. (C.F. Sanchez / Staff Photographer)
Homes destroyed by Saturday's fire on the 6500 block of Gesner St. in Southwest Philadelphia were opened up and inspected by city officials on Monday, July 7, 2014. (C.F. Sanchez / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 10, 2014

The Philadelphia Fire Department on Tuesday released transcripts of 911 calls made as a blaze consumed nine homes on a Southwest Philadelphia block, killing four children.

In the first call, a man described a couch on fire on the porch of a house on the 6500 block of Gesner Street. In a call fielded two minutes later, another caller told a dispatcher that four houses are already on fire.

The third recording released by the department was from a fire fighter at a station around the corner from the blaze – who had not yet been deployed to the fire - asking a dispatcher, in urgent tones, to upgrade the fire from a rubbish fire to a dwelling fire.

Fire officials said they were releasing the tapes - plus a timeline of the department's activity during the blaze and a map of the trucks that first responded - in order to combat misinformation about the department's response time.

Alluding to an angry protest outside the 65th Street station Monday night, they said firefighters had been unfairly maligned as slow to respond by frustrated residents.

The first 911 call about the fire took place at 2:44:58 a.m., the department said. On the tape, a caller told a dispatcher of a fire on 65th and Gesner, "right behind y'all."

"Somebody's couch on fire," the caller said, "out on the porch, connected to a house, though."

After that call, the fire was initially classified as a rubbish fire, a low-priority classification. Engine 40, the engine assigned to the fire station around the corner from Gesner Street, was several blocks away fighting a car fire, so Engine 68, more than two miles away from the block, was dispatched instead at 2:46:06 a.m.

Meanwhile, dispatchers fielded another 911 call from Gesner Street at 2:47:03 a.m. Four houses, the caller said, were now on fire. Two minutes had elapsed since the first 911 call.

21 seconds later, at 2:47:24, a firefighter at the 65th Street station, where a ladder truck was still stationed, called a dispatcher himself. He asked the dispatcher to upgrade the fire to a dwelling fire, a more serious classification. Ladder trucks do not carry water, and would not have been deployed to a rubbish fire.

"We just walked across the street, Gesner is a couple houses, it looks like," he said.

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said the distress in the firefighter's voice was apparent from the call.

"People say they don't care - you heard the sense of urgency," he said.

Once the fire was upgraded, a ladder truck from the 65th Street station left at 2:48:30, officials said, and arrived at the scene 21 seconds later. Engine 40 left the scene of the car fire and arrived from 0.29 miles away at 2:51:10 a.m.

Engine 68, which was dispatched at 2:46:06 a.m., left for Gesner Street at 2:48:32 a.m. and arrived on the block at 2:52:02 a.m.

Another battalion left for Gesner Street at 2:49:11 a.m., arrived at the scene three minutes later from a station two miles away.

At Tuesday press conference, Sawyer said the initial classification of the fire "doesn't matter" because the firefighters had still arrived "in a timely manner."

"I think we did our best," he said.

He said that rumors in the neighborhood that trucks had taken 30 minutes or more to arrive were false and unfair to firefighters who worked tirelessly to fight the blaze.

"That incident went from three to eight houses in 10 minutes," he said. "If it had been 30 minutes, the block would have burned down."

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison said residents should call the fire department immediately when they notice a fire. One man, he said, had attempted to put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher before calling 911.

"Don't worry about being a hero," he said. "We have heroes."

awhelan@phillynews.com

215-854-2961 @aubreyjwhelan

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