Liberian ambassador visits site of fatal fire; city defends response times

Liberia Ambassador Jeremiah Sulunteh with Red Cross CEO Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes visits Gesner Street where a fire claimed 4 young children early Saturday morning. Monday, July 8, 2014. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Liberia Ambassador Jeremiah Sulunteh with Red Cross CEO Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes visits Gesner Street where a fire claimed 4 young children early Saturday morning. Monday, July 8, 2014. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer ) (Steven M. Falk)
Posted: July 10, 2014

IT WOULD HAVE been impossible for firefighters to arrive any quicker at Saturday's devastating blaze on Gesner Street that claimed the lives of four young children.

That's the message that Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer wanted heard loud and clear yesterday as the city, in an unusual move, released 9-1-1 recordings and a list of GPS-tracked response times of the first four companies to arrive on the block in the Elmwood section of Southwest Philadelphia.

"You cannot get there quicker than a minute," Sawyer said, referring to the time between when a firefighter from Ladder 4, around the corner from the fire, notified dispatchers that the ladder truck was heading there and when the truck arrived on the block at 2:48 a.m.

"That's not humanly possible," he said. "You're asking our heroes to be superheroes."

The first 9-1-1 call about the blaze, received two seconds before 2:45 a.m., came from Jeff Boone, 27, a resident of the block who spotted the couch on fire on a neighbor's porch and tried to extinguish it himself before calling 9-1-1 to report the couch in flames.

Two minutes later - in the time it took Boone to run around the corner to the firehouse - flames already began swallowing the midblock rowhouses on the south side. Before Boone would return minutes later, four houses would be ablaze.

"It was pure chaos," Boone said last night.

In a second 9-1-1 call, at 2:47 a.m., a woman is heard frantically shrieking: "Four houses are on fire! . . . Please hurry!"

Twenty-one seconds after that heart-pounding call, another call to Fire Communications: A firefighter from Ladder 4 telling the dispatch center that the ladder truck was responding to Gesner Street and requesting that the fire be upgraded to "a box" - meaning that four engines (trucks with water onboard), two ladders (used primarily for rescues, searches and to ventilate properties) and two battalions (chiefs) would respond.

About a minute later, Ladder 4 was on Gesner Street, preparing for rescues, Sawyer said.

Less than two minutes after that, Pipeline 40, the engine that had been on a car-fire call near 66th and Upland streets at the time of the Gesner Street call, arrived to throw water on the flames.

Less than a minute later, the first reports of people trapped inside surfaced.

Sawyer said the speed of the flames disproved claims that firefighters took a half-hour or longer to respond.

"That incident went from three houses to eight houses [on fire] in 10 minutes," he said. "So if that fire had been burning for 30 minutes like everyone said, the whole block would've burned down."

Meanwhile yesterday, on Gesner Street, the heartbreak over the four kids lost - twins Maria and Marialla Bowah, 4; Patrick Sanyeah, also 4; and 1-month-old Taj Jacque - still hung as heavy in the air as the putrid smell of the torched homes.

At the corner, Waday Seton clutched her 11-year-old niece, Julie Bowah, who lost her little sisters in the fire and was released yesterday from Crozer-Chester Medical Center after being treated for injuries suffered when she leaped from the second story of her home to escape the blaze.

Julie smiled weakly but said little. Her mother, also injured, remains hospitalized.

"She's not doing good. She's still in shock," Seton said of Julie. "Right now, my main concern is for my sister. My prayer is for her to come out safely."

Two politicians, a dignitary and a celebrity flocked to the narrow block yesterday to see the damage up close and to offer support.

"I have four grandchildren and one great-grandchild," said U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-Phila., looking distraught as he stood across from the row of blackened homes. "I can't even imagine."

Brady said his office is "ready, willing and able" to help residents recover any documentation, like IDs and visas, lost in the fire.

Jeremiah Sulunteh, Liberian ambassador to the U.S., arrived in a black Cadillac about 6:30 p.m. outside Christ International Baptist Church, at the 65th Street end of the block, where a teddy-bear shrine to the young victims popped up and people have been coming to donate clothes and other items.

Sulunteh joined Brady to survey the block, stepping at one point onto the front steps of one of the destroyed rowhouses.

"The people in Liberia need to see this," Sulunteh told a neighbor who had questioned why he was doing a "photo shoot" in front of the devastation.

Sulunteh said he cleared his schedule yesterday, even rushing out of a meeting at the White House, after seeing video of Monday night's raw show of emotion during residents' protest in which they blocked fire trucks from leaving the 65th Street station and clashed with cops.

As Sulunteh stood on the devastated block, he said the sights reminded him of his - and many of the fire victims' - war-torn home country.

It was like stepping into the "war zone where innocent children were slaughtered," he said.

State Rep. Ron Waters, D-Philadelphia, whose district includes Gesner Street, was at the scene last night, as he had been Monday amid the chaos of the protest.

Rapper Meek Mill also visited the block yesterday, pledging to help and calling on his millions of Twitter followers to donate clothes, food and money.

Later last night, Sulunteh addressed a packed house at the church.

"I want answers, because this did not just happen to these families. This did not just happen to Southwest Philadelphia. This could happen anywhere," he said. "We need to know how to keep our children safe."

DN Editorial: Where's the outrage?

To donate, visit the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania's website at Christ International Baptist Church, 65th Street near Gesner, is also accepting donations of food, toys and other items weekdays before 7 p.m.

On Twitter: @morganzalot

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