Ladder company mourns loss of firefighters

KENSINGTON - April 9, 2012

Colleagues of 60-year-old Lieutenant Robert Neary and 25-year-old firefighter Daniel Sweeney have placed the mens' helmets in a makeshift shrine and the company is draped in bunting.

The 5-alarm fire was first reported at 3:13 a.m. inside what was the Thomas Buck Hosiery Factory at Jasper and York streets, which has been abandoned since the mid 1970s. Firefighters arrived on the scene to find heavy fire showing from all six floors of the building. Residents described hearing explosions coming from inside the factory inferno.

The factory fire was placed under control at 5:21 a.m., however hot embers whipped up in strong winds started fires at six nearby homes and several surrounding businesses, including a fire at Giamari Furniture & Bedding.

It was approximately 5:50 a.m. when crews were trying to extinguish the flames inside the furniture store when a rear wall collapsed, trapping five firefighters.

One of the firefighters managed to free himself, but four others were trapped inside for several hours until they were finally pulled from the rubble.

Lt. Neary was pronounced dead at the scene.

Neary was a 38-year veteran of the force and leaves behind a wife and three grown children.

Three firefighters were transported to Temple University Hospital.

One of the firefighters, Daniel Sweeney, died at the hospital.

Among the injured, firefighter Pat Nally, a five-year veteran of the department, is currently in the hospital ICU in stable condition.

Firefighter Francis Cheney, an eight-year veteran of the department and son of a retired father captain was treated and released with only bumps and bruises.

"He said the amount of debris and concrete had to be 6, 7, 8 feet high. He started trying to remove debris and he thinks sometime during that time he passed out," Francis Cheney, Sr. said.

Police motorcycles arrived later in the morning to lead a procession of fire department vehicles as the bodies of the fallen firefighters were transported to the medical examiner's office.

A Lieutenant since 1983, Robert Neary had been awarded four unit citations in his career. He was a Philadelphia police officer for three years before joining the fire department, and served as an Army reservist for 10 years, where he attained the rank of Sergeant 1st Class. Neary leaves behind his wife, Diane, and their three children.

Daniel Sweeney is the son of retired Philadelphia Fire Captain David Sweeney. Daniel joined the fire department in July of 2006 and had been awarded two unit citations during his time in service.

For Ladder Company 10 to lose two members in one day, their captain says it is beyond surreal for him and his firefighters.

"They're going to have to invent a new word because surreal doesn't cover it. This is probably one of the worst days of my life, along with a lot of my guys. All my guys are deeply shocked. It's a very emotional time," Philadelphia Fire Department Captain Dennis Merrigan said.

Mayor Michael Nutter returned from a conference in Tallahassee, Florida Monday night and his first stop was the fire scene.

He said he needed to be there to assess the situation, but also for personal reasons, to see where two of his firefighters were killed.

The mayor described the phone call to the families as the toughest in his life.

"I pledged to them that we will do everything we possibly can to support them at this time, but their pain is unimaginable," Nutter said.

Nutter has asked that the city flag be flown at half-mast for the next 30 days in memory of the fallen firefighters.

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers told reporters Monday morning that the last time the department lost a firefighter was in 2006, and the last time multiple firefighters were killed in action was back in August of 2004.

When asked about the network of support for the family of the fallen firefighters, Commissioner Ayers responded by saying, "We come together as a band of brothers and sisters, we support each other, we stay together - firefighters, paramedics, officers, police. We're being supported - the hospital system. We're being supported. We're a part of a community. We're front and center in the community all the time [with] public safety. So we're getting a lot of support, just as we give service to our citizens, they're serving us right now."

Like so many abandoned factories and warehouses in this old once booming industrial section of Philadelphia, neighbors say the building that burned this morning, triggering so much tragedy, has more recently been a target for invasion by druggies, the homeless, and scrappers - thieves who steel salvageable metals like copper.

Jeff Carpineta of the East Kensington Neighborhood Association tells us, "The building's not secure. There's scrappers, people come in and out. There's possible squatters in the building, we think. And that's all besides the building being a problem of not being developed and being a dark scary place."

The owners of the building now face possible charges after allegedly repeatedly ignoring safety citations. They owed over $100,000 in fines and back taxes.

READ: Officials: Kensington factory cited for violations

Officials identify the property owners as Nahman Lichtenstein, along with Yechiel and Michael Lichtenstein of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based YML Realty Holdings. Through York Street Development and YML Properties, the company is connected to possibly 34 properties throughout Philadelphia. Officials are investigating those other properties.

A law firm representing the owner of the vacant Philadelphia warehouse calls the deaths "an unspeakable tragedy."

New York-based law firm Herrick, Feinstein represents owner York Street Property Development. Spokesman David Feuerstein says "condolences and heartfelt prayers" go out to the families of Lt. Neary and firefighter Sweeney.

31 homes were evacuated and power cut off to much of the community as a precaution while firefighters battled the blaze. The Red Cross is continuing to care for evacuees at a church compound, located at B Street and Lehigh Avenue. Three neighborhood schools were closed for the day.

So far, there is no word on what sparked the fire.

Whether the fire was deliberately set or accidental, someone could eventually be facing murder charges.

As authorities investigate a cause, the fire company continues to grieve.

Firefighters work long hours, battle deadly heat and flames, and operate in some of the most intensely stressful environments.

Most nights, the family members come home, however, this morning two did not and it hurts.

"We just ask the public to keep us in your prayers and if you see a firefighter, paramedic, or police officer, just say thank you, just hug them; it's just a very sad time for us, our family, the fire department right now," Philadelphia Fire Chief Anthony Hudgins said.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019 WPVI-TV. All Rights Reserved.