Pain is raw for fire victim's father

Patrick Sanyeah on Wednesday at City Hall, where he criticized firefighters' response.
Patrick Sanyeah on Wednesday at City Hall, where he criticized firefighters' response. (C.F. SANCHEZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 14, 2014

Slamming his chest with an open palm in anger and anguish, Patrick Sanyeah searched for reasons not to end his life as he grieved for his little boy in the July heat.

Sanyeah's namesake, Patrick, 4, died with three other children in a house fire last Saturday in the 6500 block of Gesner Street in Southwest Philadelphia.

"I think a lot about suicide," said Sanyeah, 30, a refugee of the Liberian civil war, as he sat keening, cursing, and hurting in the sweltering back room of an African video store on Woodland Avenue last week.

What stays Sanyeah's hand is a son named Wisdom, 2. "He needs me," Sanyeah said, adding, "I wouldn't live on Earth anymore, but I have Wisdom."

Sanyeah, toughened by a rough background that includes run-ins with the law, riled the city for a few days, leading a protest of Liberians who said firefighters were too slow to respond to the blaze in their neighborhood.

With his grief overwhelming, Sanyeah said, he called an end to the protest.

If anything can make the death of a child even worse, Sanyeah said, it's knowing that Patrick - who didn't live in the Gesner house - was only visiting on the night of the inferno.

Sanyeah and Patrick's mother, Elenor Jacque, 23, also from Liberia, are not married. They live in separate apartments in Darby, Sanyeah said. The couple had joint custody of Patrick, who lived alternately with each parent.

Jacque also lived with her 6-week-old son, Taj, from another father, Sanyeah said.

In the days before the fire, Jacque's apartment had a plumbing problem, and she no longer had water, Sanyeah said.

He'd given Jacque $600 to find a new apartment. She was in the process of looking, Sanyeah said, but on the Fourth of July, she needed a place to stay.

She'd gone with Patrick and Taj to the Gesner house of Dewen Bowah, 41, a family friend whom she called "grandmom," a sobriquet for a Liberian elder who provides love and counsel. Jacque had stayed in the house before, Sanyeah said.

Both boys died in the fire, which started about 2:30 a.m., July 5, when a couch on a neighbor's porch caught fire, officials said.

Bowah's 4-year-old twins, Maria and Marialla, also perished. Three of her other children survived, as did Bowah, who was in Crozer-Chester Hospital on Friday night, recovering from burns and smoke inhalation. She was improving, no longer dependent on a ventilator, said Dahn Dennis, president of the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania.

Jacque was not in the house when the fire started. It had been a tough night getting the kids to sleep, and she hadn't eaten dinner, Sanyeah said Jacque had told him.

Once Bowah and the children had fallen asleep, Jacque went out to a late-night chicken place nearby, Sanyeah said. He said Bowah's boyfriend, whose name he didn't know, was also in the house, and had tried to save Patrick, but burned his hands on a doorknob heated by the fire.

Official accounts do not mention the boyfriend's being in the house.

When Jacque returned, Sanyeah said, she saw the house ablaze, her children trapped. "My kids are in there!" Jacque screamed at firefighters, who blocked her from entering the building, Sanyeah said.

Jacque, who is staying with her brother in a Darby house, declined to be interviewed.

The fire, which is still being investigated, has buckled Sanyeah, a tough and emotional man with a slender, muscled frame and expressive eyes that broadcast whatever he's feeling.

"I'm hurting right now, dog," Sanyeah said as sweet African pop music inappropriate to the moment played throughout the video store. "My son is burned to ashes, and I'm not going to get over it."

During the week, Sanyeah angered city officials by demanding an apology for what he and others described as a slow response. Officials countered by saying that firefighters had arrived quickly enough but that the fast-moving blaze couldn't be contained.

Young Liberian men accustomed to a tough immigrant life and what they perceive as constant police harassment seemed to use the fire as a means of venting frustration with all of official Philadelphia.

"We got locked up for nothing, but when you call for an emergency, they don't come," said Mohammad Wilson, 27, the co-owner of Afro Music & Video, a clubhouse of sorts for 20-year-olds from the neighborhood who come and go throughout the course of the day.

During a protest led by Sanyeah at City Hall on Wednesday, Sanyeah demanded to know where firefighters were as the fire spread.

Quickly turning the tables, Public Safety Director Michael Resnick asked, "Where were you?"

The question exploded in Sanyeah's brain, and still churns his gut. The implication, he said, is that "I'm a good-for-nothing dad" who wasn't watching out for his son.

"It was Elenor's night for custody, not mine," Sanyeah said. "I took Patrick to every doctor's appointment, to his haircuts. I bought him every diaper he's used. And now a new bike with training wheels. Everything on Earth I do, I do for my sons."

That dedication is not without its complications.

Sanyeah describes himself as a "wild child" who arrived in America at 17 with his mother and six siblings, after his father died in the Liberian civil war.

He said he graduated from Bartram High School in 2002, then found life nothing but difficult as his mother got sicker from a skin disease. "When you come from poor neighborhoods," he said, "it's hard to achieve."

He was homeless for a while, sleeping in parks. He said he was shot twice while being robbed. To prove it, he lifted his shirt to show an 18-inch scar running from his abdomen to his chest.

He's worked many jobs, he said: at a Wawa, at a parking garage, in restaurant kitchens as a dishwasher. These days, he said, he paints houses and helps sell salvaged cars.

Also, he admitted, "I've been arrested plenty of times." His rap sheet lists 11 arrests on charges of fraud, theft, and robbery - the latter resulting in an acquittal. He has never been found guilty of a violent crime.

Sanyeah spent 22 months in prison for a fraud in Mercer County, N.J., and three months in jail in Philadelphia for stealing $20,000 in a swindle, records show.

His crimes ranged from complex scams to swiping double-A batteries from drugstores.

"I don't sell drugs. I don't shoot people," Sanyeah said. "Does it matter what I did in the street to feed my kids?"

Still, he acknowledged, "my family suffered when I went to prison."

And the anger that sometimes burbles out of him was noticeable even to little Patrick: "He'd say to me: 'Be a good boy like me. Don't yell at people.' "

This was a good year for Patrick, Sanyeah said. He had finished his first year of preschool in Yeadon, where he'd learned to write his name.

Patrick was precocious and getting smarter, becoming more a companion than a baby. After a recent trip to Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey, Patrick asked Sanyeah for a car, a question that still makes him laugh.

Patrick could rap, tell jokes, eat a heaping plate from the local buffet restaurant. And he loved Wisdom, who called Patrick Nu-Nu - "sweet boy."

Wisdom has been asking for Nu-Nu.

"That messes me up most," Sanyeah said, tearing up and wiping his eyes with his T-shirt. "I lie and say he's on vacation. But I owe Wisdom answers, and I owe Patrick by telling Wisdom for the rest of his life, 'You used to have a brother.' "

The raw emotion that fueled Sanyeah's protest of firefighter response has morphed into a slow-building wrath at the person who caused the conflagration. Neighbors believe that someone shot fireworks at the couch on the Gesner porch, starting the blaze.

"I want to know why, and I want to know who," Sanyeah said, banging a beam in the video store with his fist.

The thought of suicide flashed again in his head then, he said.

Then Sanyeah thought better of it, instead imparting a prayer to his dead child, and a plea to his living one: "Patrick, lay in peace, man. I'll be there for your mother and little brother.

"And Wisdom, keep me strong, little boy."


Staff writers Mark Fazlollah and Aubrey Whelan contributed to this article.

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