In fire's aftermath, kindness, tiny coffins, burial help

Boarded up homes on Gesner St. are all that remain after a fire destroyed most of the block on Satuday, July 5, 2014. (C.F. Sanchez / Staff Photographer)
Boarded up homes on Gesner St. are all that remain after a fire destroyed most of the block on Satuday, July 5, 2014. (C.F. Sanchez / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 16, 2014

In the aftermath of the fire that killed four children on Gesner Street on July 5, neighbors and relatives complained that Fire Department response was too slow, while indignant city officials castigated the father of one of the victims for his vocal attacks.

As feelings hardened, there was literally a standoff with police on the sidewalk outside City Hall.

But quietly, behind the scenes, a police chaplain sidestepped the acrimony. He reached out to a nonprofit to help the family, natives of Liberia, to defray funeral costs.

Chaplain Dave Crawford alerted Patricia A. Quinn, who runs Final Farewell, a Kensington-based organization that helps bury children under 18 whose families cannot afford funerals. A licensed funeral director, Quinn rounded up child-sized caskets and loaded them into her car Monday for the victims.

Beyond securing the caskets, which together cost nearly $2,500, Quinn said, she used her contacts to negotiate the costs of burial vaults and space for graves at SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery in Marple Township for the children.

In all, Final Farewell will pay $5,000 in funeral costs for Patrick Sanyeah, 4; his half-brother, Taj Jacque, six weeks old; and 4-year-old twins Maria and Marialla Bowah. Funeral arrangements have not yet been finalized.

"I tried to get Trish involved because my heart is to do what Jesus would do and comfort people," Crawford said. "I don't believe I smoothed any waters between the city and the families. I was just there as a presence."

He said he was called to the fire scene by the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania. It wasn't a hard decision to call Quinn soon afterward, he said.

Crawford said he and Quinn are friends. And Quinn is known among the Liberian community for her help in 2008, when she volunteered to help immigrant victims of a day-after-Christmas fire in West Philadelphia that killed seven people, four of them younger than 18. The cost of the services she provided exceeded $10,000.

"I just want to make it as easy as possible for people," Quinn said.

Meanwhile, Turay Memorial Funeral Chapel on North 22d Street will donate its services, including four limousines and four hearses, for the funeral, said chapel associate Exodus Ahossouhe. He estimated the value of his contribution as $7,000.

For his part, Mayor Nutter has reached out to the families, particularly to Patrick Sanyeah, 30, of Darby Borough, whose son perished in the blaze. Nutter wrote Sanyeah a letter last week saying, "I am very sorry that your children did not survive the early morning fire.. . ." He added that "valiant" firefighters "did their very best," and got to the scene of the fire "within minutes."

Sanyeah and others insisted that firefighters took 20 minutes to arrive, an assertion that officials vehemently deny.

At the City Hall demonstration, Public Safety Director Michael Resnick had asked aloud, "Where were you?" The question was aimed at Sanyeah, who took it as a criticism that he was not available for his son. On the night of the fire, Sanyeah said, Patrick was with his mother, Elenor Jacque, who shared joint custody of the child.

On Monday evening, Sanyeah was meeting with Nutter's chief of staff, Everett Gillison. "We're just trying to keep things moving to put the kids to rest," Sanyeah said.

Tommy Massaro, a real estate developer and economic development adviser to city officials, said he was voluntarily helping Sanyeah. Massaro, who attended the Gillison meeting with Sanyeah, is known among the African community in Philadelphia for building homes in Africa.

"We are progressing toward a working relationship" between Sanyeah and the city, he said. "The bitterness and mistrust is gone."

He said Sanyeah is working with city officials to plan a memorial service, perhaps this weekend, to be held at a park near Gesner Street.

Funeral arrangements are on hold so a family elder can travel from Liberia to attend the service, Ahossouhe said.


alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969

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