Protesters demand answers at City Hall on fatal fire

Posted: July 11, 2014

MORE THAN two dozen protesters, angry about the weekend fire that killed four children, marched about 5 miles to City Hall from their Liberian-immigrant neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia yesterday, chanting, "We want answers!" and "We want Nutter!"

When they got there, they were surrounded by about 30 police officers, and alternated between chanting and sitting on the pavement until about 7:45 p.m. They vowed to return in the morning.

Meanwhile, Mayor Nutter, after returning from a trip to Washington, D.C., slipped in and out of City Hall through an entrance that he doesn't normally use.

The protesters, who had started the more-than-90-minute march about 1:30 p.m. on Gesner Street near 65th, questioned the city's response to the fire early Saturday that broke out on the block. Many had been among about 200 people who had demonstrated outside a fire station around the corner on Monday, when two were arrested.

Emelie Wureh, 19, said she was marching to show support for the children who died, their parents and the Liberian community. Wureh said that she has friends who live on the block and that this was not the first time children had died in a fire in the Elmwood community.

In December 2008, seven people - several of them children and of Liberian descent - died in a fire at Elmwood Avenue near 64th Street. The nearby Christ International Baptist Church also was struck by fire in 2001.

"If we all say nothing, our voices don't get heard and we feel like it won't stop," Wureh said during the march.

Outside City Hall, protester Samuel Johnson also said he was frustrated that another deadly fire had struck the African community.

"It's time to stand up," said Johnson, 21, who lives on Elmwood Avenue near 72nd in Eastwick. "We need the truth. We want the answers. We need justice."

Nutter and Fire Department officials have repeatedly said that there was no delay in the response to Saturday's fire, and on Tuesday they released 9-1-1 recordings and time logs that showed firefighters arriving within minutes.

That did little to quell the concerns of Patrick Sanyeah, the father of two of the victims and the leader of yesterday's protest.

"The fire commissioner is telling me, 'We did a good job,' " Sanyeah said. "If you did a good job, you would've rescued somebody."

Director of Public Safety Michael Resnick said the city held two meetings with Sanyeah and other relatives of the fire victims yesterday.

Resnick said Sanyeah had not yet said where he was on the night of the fire and had not spoken with the fire marshal. During a meeting with Everett Gillison, Nutter's chief of staff, Sanyeah got up and left, Resnick said.

"We stand by the men and women in the Fire Department," Resnick said.

Sanyeah said he was at City Hall yesterday to see the mayor.

The protesters weren't the only City Hall visitors who came looking for the mayor yesterday.

Jeremiah Sulunteh, Liberia's ambassador to the United States, met in the morning with City Council members and relatives of the four children, all of whom were of Liberian descent.

"Was this something that would have been prevented? . . . What actions were taken?" Sulunteh asked. "That is the question that [Liberian] President [Ellen Johnson] Sirleaf wants me to get back to her with an answer: What went wrong?"

Sulunteh said he had asked for an appointment with Nutter but couldn't get one because of the mayor's D.C. trip.

Gillison said the mayor and Sulunteh had talked on the phone.

"The ambassador was asking questions, and the mayor provided the kinds of answers" that he has been giving since Monday, Gillison said.

The issue has become a major headache for the administration, but Gillison said that the initial rumors and misinformation - for instance, that no firefighter showed up for half an hour - have stopped spreading.

"Now at least we're not talking about things that are false," he said. "What you're hearing is grief. What you're hearing is pain."

On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN


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