Phila. releases recordings of calls in deadly fire

Jeff Boone was the first person to call 911 after he tried to put the fire out with a fire extinguisher. He points down Gesner Street in Southwest Philadelphia toward the site of the blaze.
Jeff Boone was the first person to call 911 after he tried to put the fire out with a fire extinguisher. He points down Gesner Street in Southwest Philadelphia toward the site of the blaze. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 10, 2014

The caller sounded hurried, but not panicked.

"Somebody's couch on fire," the man told a 911 operator early Saturday in Southwest Philadelphia.

"Out on the porch," he continued, "connected to a house, though."

Two minutes later, another call came about the growing fire at 6517 Gesner St., this voice frantic.

"Four houses are on fire. . . . Please hurry," a woman screamed.

The 911 recordings released by the Philadelphia Fire Department on Tuesday shed light on the chaotic moments when a small porch fire grew into a swift-moving blaze that consumed nine rowhouses and killed four children - and that sparked outrage among residents who questioned the department's response.

Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison said at an afternoon news conference that the city was releasing recordings of the calls - as well as a second-by-second account of the response to the blaze - to address misinformation that firefighters had been slow to respond.

The display came as city officials and community and church leaders sought to ease tensions in the Elmwood neighborhood, where Monday night, residents challenged the fire commissioner at a community meeting, then hundreds angrily demonstrated outside a fire station nearby at 65th Street and Woodland Avenue, a protest that escalated into a confrontation with police and a handful of arrests.

Many in the crowd said they wanted an explanation of how four children could perish in a fire just 225 yards from a firehouse. Others in the working-class neighborhood. largely composed of Africans, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, angrily repeated rumors that fire trucks had taken 30 minutes to arrive.

In any case, news of the fire, which killed 4-year-old twins Maria and Marialla Bowah; Patrick Sanyeah, also 4; and 11/2-month-old Taj Jacque, has reached as far away as Chicago and Boston, and drew the attention of Liberia's ambassador to the United States, Jeremiah Sulunteh, who arrived from Washington on Tuesday night to comfort the families of the dead children. He spent nearly two hours speaking privately with them.

Sulunteh said he stood on a porch of one of the burned houses "to feel it."

"Liberians need to see this," he said.

He compared the block to a war zone, and told residents he would ask city officials for answers on "what happened, how it happened, and how we can stop it from happening in the future."

He said he was to meet with city officials on Wednesday, and would report his findings to the Liberian government. The parents of the four children who died are from Liberia.

At the earlier news conference, Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer and other city officials provided an outline of the department's response to the blaze.

The first call came in at 2:44:58 a.m., Sawyer said, and a crew was dispatched just over a minute later. The call was initially classified as a low-priority rubbish fire.

The fire engine assigned to the 65th Street station was several blocks away fighting a car fire, so another engine from a station more than two miles away was dispatched.

The third recording released by the department was made at 2:47:24 a.m. by a firefighter from the station on 65th who had walked around the corner and spotted the growing flames on Gesner. The firefighter urgently asked the dispatcher to upgrade the blaze from a rubbish fire to a dwelling fire, a more serious classification.

"We just walked across the street, Gesner is a couple houses, it looks like," he said, asking that his crew be put into service.

"People say they don't care. You heard the sense of urgency," Sawyer said.

Once the fire was upgraded, a ladder truck from the 65th Street station left at 2:48:30, and arrived 21 seconds later. The engine that had been battling the car fire arrived a minute later.

Sawyer said the initial classification of the fire "doesn't matter" because the firefighters still arrived "in a timely manner."

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

He said rumors of a delayed response were 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."

The fire's cause has yet to be determined, he said. Neighbors have said they heard fireworks in the moments before the fire started.

Gillison criticized Gesner Street resident Jeff Boone, 27, who, after spotting the flames from his home, tried to douse them with a broken fire extinguisher before dialing 911 and running toward the fire station.

Gillison said Boone - and all residents - should call 911 immediately upon spotting a fire.

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

On Tuesday, Boone was back on Gesner, tending to his own house, damaged by smoke and water.

He said he wished that his extinguisher had worked - and that he had been able to save the children whose screams he heard.

Told of Gillison's comments, Boone said he had followed his instinct, which was to help.

"Like they say, you call emergency," he said. "But in a situation, you're human - you react the way you react. You try to help."

On Tuesday, residents passed the charred remains of the boarded-up rowhouses, the stench of fire still in the air. Some echoed the passions of the previous day's protests, and repeated the rumors of a 30-minute delay.

"One of them was my cousin Patrick," Rahem Davis, 12, said. "I was playing with him last week."

Others sought simple explanations for such an unfathomable tragedy.

Tyrone Watson, the block captain and a Comcast contractor, said the couch where the fire began had been a source of concern on the block.

"I did tell them to get rid of the junk weeks ago," Watson said, declining to name the person to whom he had spoken. "Believe me, he feels so guilty now. But he didn't start the fire."

It's not unusual for people to set couches on fire in the area, said Linda Maldonado, 38.

"Around trash time, that's what they do," she said, saying two couches had been set afire around the corner in the previous month or so. People do it when they want the furniture carted away, she said.

Watson said those upset over the response time had "misplaced" their anger.

"They're blaming those who came to help, not those who started the fire," he said.

Watson and Peter Alpha, 48, who lives a few doors from the site of the fire, defended firefighters and denigrated the protesters.

"Those firemen were going crazy, like madness," Watson said. "It was like watching a movie on fast forward."

The demonstrators were not even from the street, Alpha said.

"How can you come from somewhere else to our block to demonstrate?" he asked. "This was a killing fire."


The First Two Calls to 911 About Gesner St. Blaze

The Philadelphia Fire Department has released a transcript of the first two calls it received in connection with the fatal fire on Gesner Street over the weekend.

First call, at 2:44:58 a.m.

Dispatcher 864: Philadelphia Fire Department Dispatcher 864. Where is your emergency?

Caller: 65th and Gesner.

Dispatcher: Where at?

Caller: 65th, right behind y'all. On, on second block from police district.

Dispatcher: 65th and what?

Caller: Gesner, G-e-s-n-e-r.

Dispatcher: All right, tell me what happened out there.

Caller: . . . Somebody's couch on fire, out on the porch, connected to a house, though.

Dispatcher: All right, someone's on the way.

Caller: All right . . . (followed by unreadable background voice)

Second call, at 2:47:03 a.m.

Dispatcher 867: Philadelphia Fire Department 867. What's the address of your emergency, please?

Caller (starting during above transmission): Yes, yes (screaming in background), 6517.

Dispatcher: OK, you have to slow down, 6517 what?

Caller: 6517 Gesner St. Four houses are on fire.

Dispatcher: Four houses?

Caller: Four houses, four houses are on fire.

Dispatcher: Four houses on fire?

Caller: Yes, four houses on fire.

Dispatcher: All right.

Caller: Yes, four houses on fire, 6517 Gesner St.

Dispatcher: 6517 Gesner, OK, all right.

Caller: All right. Please hurry, there's four houses. . . .

       


mnewall@phillynews.com

215-854-2759

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