Questions, passions remain over deadly Southwest Phila. fire

Protesters chant in front of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia during their march from the scene of the deadly fire in Southwest Phila. to City Hall .ANDREW THAYER / Staff Photographer
Protesters chant in front of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia during their march from the scene of the deadly fire in Southwest Phila. to City Hall .ANDREW THAYER / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 11, 2014

Four days after a Southwest Philadelphia blaze killed four children, prompting angry questions about the adequacy of the Fire Department's response, a city safety official had a question for Patrick Sanyeah, father of two of the children who died.

Where was he when the fire erupted at 2:45 a.m. Saturday, when only one adult was at home?

Public Safety Director Michael Resnick posed that question to reporters covering a protest Sanyeah led Wednesday afternoon outside City Hall.

A few minutes later, a reporter asked Sanyeah to respond to Resnick's query, and the father exploded: "I was five minutes away! I was five minutes away! . . . Where was I? Where were they?"

Outrage and sadness over the fire in the largely African immigrant neighborhood emerged anew Wednesday as City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson hosted a morning meeting to address residents' concerns, Liberia's ambassador to the United States tried to play a calming role, and Sanyeah led the angry sit-in on the City Hall apron. The protest started about 3 p.m. and continued into the evening.

"You let four babies die! . . . We want Nutter! . . . We want justice!" the protesters, numbering about 20, shouted after arriving while a blue wall of police on bicycles kept them from entering the building.

Calling the city's account of the Fire Department's response to the three-alarm fire on the 6500 block of Gesner Street a fiction, the protesters - mostly Liberian immigrants, including Sanyeah - shouted, "They ain't say what really happened!"

Sanyeah, wearing a white T-shirt that read in bold letters, "An Unnecessary Tragedy," and that showed color images of the children who died, led the emotional group, telling when to chat and when to quiet down. "The mayor will apologize to us. That's what we want," he shouted.

Nutter, who was in Washington in the morning, did not appear at the protest, but Resnick was on hand for most of it. In an interview on the plaza, he expressed frustration with the protesters' call for Nutter to appear and apologize.

Resnick pointed out that Nutter went to Gesner Street on Saturday and met for about three hours with the families of the dead children. Resnick said the mayor had told them that the city was "with them" in their pain and recovery and "feels their loss."

Nutter "has nothing really to apologize for," Resnick said.

Sanyeah also attended the morning meeting hosted by Johnson in response to the three-alarm blaze that killed Sanyeah's sons Patrick Sanyeah, 4, and Taj Jacque, 11/2 months, and 4-year-old twins Maria and Marialla Bowah. The fire engulfed eight rowhouses.

The Office of the Fire Commissioner said Wednesday that the cause of the blaze, which appears to have started in a sofa on a porch, was still under investigation.

In a conference call Wednesday night, Nutter's chief spokesman, Mark McDonald, and Chief of Staff Everett Gillison said officials were seeking to talk to all the residents, including Sanyeah, to learn what happened before and after the fire.

The Fire Department's response has become a point of contention, with many in the community alleging that it took an inordinately long time for crews to respond to a fire around the corner from a fire station at 65th Street and Woodland Avenue.

On Tuesday, the city released tapes of 911 calls related to the fire, as well as a timeline that showed firefighters responding within minutes, despite the first call being designated a lower-priority "rubbish fire."

The Rev. Napoleon Divine of Christ International Baptist Church, which is around the corner from the fire site and has been a gathering center for Liberian immigrants, told Sanyeah that the City Hall meeting was part of the healing process.

"We share your pain," said Divine. "But we need to talk, and that's why we are here."

Divine, Sanyeah, and the victims of the fire are members of Southwest Philadelphia's large Liberian community.

Liberian Ambassador Jeremiah C. Sulunteh, who toured the fire scene Tuesday night, also attended the Wednesday morning meeting called by Johnson.

"The question that comes up is, why did it happen?" he said. "Is there something that could've been prevented?"

Councilman David Oh, speaking at the morning meeting, assured Sanyeah that a "neutral" investigation would allow everyone to have a say.

"If there were things that could have been done better . . . we will, I believe, find that out," Oh said. "No stone will be left unturned."

Divine also apologized for Monday night's protest.

"We respect this country that has been a blessing to us," he said. "We are confident we can move beyond what occurred."

Johnson, whose district includes Southwest Philadelphia, assured Sanyeah and other family members that "we'll be standing with you in this and beyond."

Funeral arrangements for the children have been put on hold because Dewen Bowah, 41, the mother of Maria and Marialla, is still hospitalized, Divine said. He said he did not know the extent of Bowah's injuries.

Divine said that it would be "sacrilegious" to begin discussing a funeral without the mother present.

He added that the twins' remains have yet to be released from the Medical Examiner's Office. A spokesman for the office could not be reached Wednesday afternoon.


Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Michael Matza, Alfred Lubrano, and Aubrey Whelan.

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