We need truth about Gesner St. fire

MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cleanup begins on Gesner Street the day after a fire damaged eight rowhouses and killed four young children. The Fire Department's investigation has turned up no answers as to what started the fire.
MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cleanup begins on Gesner Street the day after a fire damaged eight rowhouses and killed four young children. The Fire Department's investigation has turned up no answers as to what started the fire.
Posted: August 20, 2014

SO THAT'S IT? The flames of the Gesner Street fire that killed four babies on July 5 burned so hot that the blaze destroyed any evidence of what started it.

That can't be it . . .

On Friday, fire officials declared the cause of the fire "undetermined."

On Sunday, the four children who died in the inferno were buried.

Now it's time for the community to start demanding answers of itself as vigorously as it did of others in the days after the fire.

Shortly after flames tore through a series of rowhouses on Gesner Street near 65th about 3 a.m., demonstrators took to the streets to demand answers from a Fire Department they were convinced hadn't responded fast enough to save the children.

Grief-stricken mourners wouldn't accept that firefighters had done everything they could - even 9-1-1 recordings and time logs showed firefighters were on the scene within minutes.

People angry at the demonstrators misdirected their own anger and cruelly blamed parents of the victims for not doing enough to save their own children.

It was insane, and ugly.

So ugly that cooler heads begged everyone to stop with the finger-pointing - at least until all the facts came out.

The lack of facts is almost as heartbreaking as the loss of innocent lives.

After what sounds like an exhaustive investigation by the chief fire marshal, the Police Department and the citywide Joint Arson Task Force, they came up empty.

"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 Sawyer said in a statement released Friday.

The case, he said, could be revisited if new evidence surfaces.

If I'm reading that correctly, that means that if someone doesn't step up with cold, hard facts, no one will answer for these children's deaths.

No one will answer for 4-year-old twins Maria and Marialla Bowah's lives being cut short.

No one will answer for the heartbreaking loss of 4-year-old Patrick Sanyesh.

No one will answer for why Taj Jacque's short life was snatched away after just 49 days in this world.

That's obscene.

The Fire Department may not know what caused the fire, but they seem certain that it started on a front-porch sofa. Maybe by a cigarette or a firecracker.

Neighbors said they heard firecrackers going off, but if anyone saw or heard anything else they didn't say. In fact, in the days following the fire, some of the same neighbors quick to attack firefighters and city officials seemed equally quick to say that whoever started the fire most likely didn't do it on purpose.

Accident or not, someone started that fire.

Accident or not, members of the community should be as quick to demand answers of themselves as they were of others.

After tragedies, people often talk about the good that can come from loss. And some good things did come from that horrific fire.

A diverse community came together, said Anton Moore, a community leader whose efforts helped bring in tons of donations. After he took to social media, aid poured in to help the families of the children and dozens displaced by the fire.

Nothing will bring back the children. But it can't stop there.

Moore, who founded Unity in the Community in an effort to unite his South Philadelphia neighborhood, was one of the leaders who cautioned against finger-pointing in the days following the fire. But yesterday he, too, said it's time for answers, if for no other reason than to make sure such a tragedy never happens again and to give the parents some sense of closure.

"It's about accountability," Moore said. "If we are comfortable demanding questions from others, we should also demand answers from ourselves."

Now we know those answers aren't going to come from the ashes. Most likely they will come from the very neighborhood, perhaps the very block, where the fire started.

But first someone has to have the courage to speak for children who can't speak for themselves.

Anyone with new information should notify the Fire Marshal's Office at 215-686-1362.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas

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