At Gesner St., pain of loss in fire burns on

Posted: July 10, 2014

The residents of Gesner Street gathered on the west-side stoop, nursing their beverages, and debated the meaning of community in the welcome shade of the July afternoon.

"We call this G Block," said Lillian Rodriguez. "We're the Care Bears. We take care of each other."

On Monday, Rodriguez stared at her charred home across the way, 6520, the one that burned hours after Independence Day, the door a casualty axed in the blaze. The east side of Gesner seemed haunted, a grave site, four children gone: three 4-year-olds - twins Maria and Marialla Bowah, and Patrick Sanyeah - and Patrick's tiny brother, Taj Jacque, his life extinguished after six weeks.

When the rare wind picked up, the street reeked of smoke and burned wood. People on Gesner were angry and hot in the 92-degree swelter. You won't find many air conditioners. Talk became kindling, like the mattresses and couches on the east-side porches they said fueled the conflagration.


Rodriguez and neighbors Teenamarie Shaw, Rasheeda Steward, and Leon Dunkle talked of the fire and loss before the mayhem occurred Monday night - the protests in front of Engine Company 40 around the corner.

Some residents remain convinced that it took far too long to respond, that this was never a "rubbish fire" as the first call was classified. One hundred firefighters ultimately battled 90 minutes to calm the flames, but with four children dead, nine homes torched, and more than 30 people displaced, residents sought better answers to destruction they still can't fathom. Keisha Burgess offered arias of indignation, most of it unprintable, about how this could have happened.

The burned block of Gesner has been characterized as mostly first- and second-generation Liberian, but the truth is more complicated and messy - that is to say, more American - than that. The street has many residents who were born here, as well as immigrants from other nations, who have nothing to do with Christ International Baptist Church, the Liberian congregation on the corner that has become the center of solace and swamped with donations. "That's for their community," said Seward, who lost her home, 6524, when asked if she would pick up donated goods.

The bigger problem

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer had been in command only three weeks when Gesner Street burned. In the afternoon, he strolled the length of the block distributing smoke detectors with representatives of the local Red Cross, a convoy of television cameras in their wake. Outsiders don't tend to come to Southwest Philadelphia unless something awful has happened. Plenty of residents had active smoke detectors that went off early Saturday. (Of course, many detectors have since burned.) The bigger problem, residents said, were those sofas on porches that ignited in seconds. One neighbor whose home burned admitted she had a propane tank.

The Liberian residents of Philadelphia, thought to number around 15,000 and centered in the hard pocket of Southwest Philadelphia, fled the West African nation that was long wracked by two civil wars and, for many years, had among the highest infant mortality rates in the world.

Not that life here has been easy. The Rev. Napoleon Divine, pastor of Christ International, watched his church burn in December 2001. "When I heard of this fire, on the same street, it was like déjà vu," he said. In 2008, an inferno four blocks away claimed the lives of five residents of Liberian descent, and two from Ivory Coast.

At the church corner, there was yet another of those makeshift memorials to those who die too young: Mylar balloons, unlit candles, a mound of stuffed animals that may never comfort a child. In the evening, Rodriguez and Seward finally went to the basement to claim clothes and toiletries, only to be turned away in tears. Church members ran after them and begged the women to come back. A misunderstanding. They didn't know each other.


Upstairs in the air-conditioned sanctuary, rebuilt after the 2001 fire, a procession of potentates spoke for 90 minutes to a crowd of mostly Liberian immigrants. Committees and subcommittees were announced. "Those kids were murdered," a man yelled at Sawyer. I looked around the room to find not one of the G Block Care Bears present. Community has different meanings and contexts.

It was not surprising either that while Divine spoke of committees, enraged protesters gathered in the middle of 65th Street across from the firehouse. They yelled "Liars," taunted a phalanx of police, and sported fresh "An Unnecessary Tragedy" T-shirts featuring photos of the dead, the de facto uniform of unexplainable loss.

The protests raged longer than the fatal fire of a few nights before.

"This is not Gesner Street, not at all," said block captain Tyrone Watson later. "Let us lay the dead to rest."

215-854-2586 @kheller

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