Cause of deadly Gesner Street fire may never be known

Posted: August 17, 2014

The cause of the fire that killed four children and extensively damaged 13 houses in West Philadelphia last month may never be known, officials indicated Friday.

"Unfortunately, extensive damage to the initial area of the fire destroyed the physical evidence required to determine the exact cause of this fire," Fire Commissioner Derrick J.V. Sawyer said in a statement released Friday afternoon.

Early July 5, a fire that may have started on a couch of a rowhouse on the 6500 block of Gesner Street grew quickly and began to consume neighboring homes.

The first call came in at 2:45 a.m. By the time the fire was declared under control about 11/2 hours later, it had extensively damaged 13 houses, destroying nine of them, and sent five people to a hospital.

The fire killed 4-year-old Patrick Sanyeah; his half-brother, Taj Jacque, 6 weeks; and 4-year-old twins Maria and Marialla Bowah.

The blaze became even more notable in the days afterward when rumors spread in the neighborhood that it had taken fire crews 30 minutes or more to arrive. The misinformation resulted in demonstrations and allegations to which the Fire Department responded by releasing the 911 tapes and a timeline and map in the matter.

Sawyer's statement indicated the Fire Marshal's Office, the Police Department, and the citywide Joint Arson Task Force made a vigorous effort to find the cause. They "conducted extensive interviews, and the scene was thoroughly and meticulously processed," the statement said.

Officers conducted neighborhood interviews, and an analysis of the fire scene, including dogs trained to detect accelerants to review the debris field, said a police source with knowledge of the investigation.

"But unfortunately the fire was so hot, we weren't able to recover anything," the source said.

Detectives also interviewed some of the fire victims, other witnesses, and parents of the children who died in the fire, the source said. None of the witnesses said they saw anyone set the fire.

"We knew the sofa was the source of the fire," the police source said. "But we were not sure what ignited it."

Furthermore, there was no surveillance video to help determine how fire started.

Sawyer's statement said, "The sympathies of the community, Fire Department and the City are with the families that were affected by this tragedy."

He said the case could be revisited if new evidence emerged.


Funeral Details

Services have been set for the four children - 4-year-old Patrick Sanyeah and his half-brother, Taj Jacque, 6 weeks; and 4-year-old twins Maria and Marialla Bowah - who perished in the Gesner Street fire early on the morning of July 5. The funeral service will start at 9 a.m. Saturday at Divine Mercy Parish, 7199 Grovers Ave. in Southwest Philadelphia. Burial follows at SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery in Springfield, Delaware County.


vclark@phillynews.com215-854-5717

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