On Gesner Street, questions persist

Posted: July 11, 2014

IN A MATTER OF minutes, the Gesner Street inferno consumed four lives early Saturday.

Last night, four days after the destructive flames were extinguished, those whose lives were touched by the fire were consumed by questions.

One of those victims, Dewen Bowah, 41, remained in stable condition yesterday at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, receiving treatment for burns and smoke inhalation after rescuing three of her kids from her burning house, according to Michael Chea, a member of the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania, who visited Bowah yesterday.

Bowah's other two children home at the time of blaze, 4-year-old twins Maria and Marialla, never made it out of the house.

Funeral arrangements for the girls, as well as for the two other victims, Patrick Sanyeah, 4, and his 1-month-old brother, Taj Jacque, are on hold, Chea said, pending Bowah's release from the hospital.

Last night on Gesner Street, neighbors tried to piece together what happened Saturday, mourning the four children in the shadow of eight ruined rowhouses.

None of the homes damaged in the fire had any outstanding violations with the city's Licenses and Inspections Department at the time of the blaze, according to department records.

One neighbor, who asked the Daily News to withhold her name, watched the chaos of the fire unfold and said the kids who died were among seven who were sleeping in the house when a couch on the front porch next door went up in flames.

Authorities say the couch was the source of the deadly fire.

Bowah was home alone with the kids, the neighbor said, and babysitting the two boys for their parents, Patrick Sanyeah and Eleanor Jacque.

A panicked Bowah was able to rescue three of her own kids - they were sleeping in a bedroom closer to the rear of her house, the neighbor said.

But Patrick, Taj, Maria and Marialla were sleeping in a bedroom toward the front, directly above the roaring flames, the neighbor said.

As smoke filled the home, Bowah realized that she couldn't reach the remaining kids. She fled from the rear of the house, running up the block to the fire station on 65th Street and Woodland Avenue.

By the time she returned, the screams of the trapped children echoed down the block. In the span of a few minutes, the fire had spread to four houses.

Officials familiar with rowhouse fires say that such speed is not uncommon, especially when the flames are sparked on the wooden porches of those homes.

"Those houses are 100 years old, and the porch roofs dry out, making them susceptible to ignition," said Joe Schulle, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22.

"When you have a fire inside a home, you have plaster and other materials that slow down the fire. On those porches, it's all wood."

Also, Schulle said, the proximity and shape of the connected porches can create a wind-tunnel effect. With a strong gust, the flames can spread quickly to adjoining homes.

"When the fire starts on the porch, you have to flank it," he said. "If it spreads, you have to stop it from moving before you can tackle the source itself."

As investigators continued to gather information on Saturday's blaze, they disputed residents' claims that fire crews took 30 minutes to respond.

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer took issue with that figure during a news conference Tuesday, citing 9-1-1 recordings and other department records.

"When there's an emergency situation, one minute seems like an hour," he said. "One minute seems like 30 minutes. Once again, one minute later they were on scene, so the perception of someone waiting could be an hour, [or] 30 minutes."

It appears that there's some science behind Sawyer's statement.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Texas, published a study in 2011 on what he calls tachychronia - the brain's tendency to record "more dense memory" during high-intensity situations.

"Normally, memories pass through our brains like a sieve, but in scary situations, more memories get written down, to put it crudely," Eagleman told the Daily News.

"When we go to process it later, it feels like the event took a long time, because we're not used to reading memories of that intensity."

- Staff writer Morgan Zalot contributed to this report.

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