Philly fire commish defends response to fatal fire

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer: "Now you're asking our heroes to be superheroes. They're human beings too."

The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Members of a tight-knit West African community in Philadelphia want to know why four young children died in a porch fire that spread across half a city block — just steps from a fire station.

Fire officials, a day after angry protests erupted over the fire, defended the response time on Tuesday and called firefighters human beings, not "superheroes."

Emergency calls show the weekend fire spread quickly, from the first report of a burning couch just before 2:45 a.m. Saturday to an urgent second call at 2:47 a.m., when a woman said "four houses are on fire, ... please hurry."

She was told that help was on the way. However, the nearby company's engine truck — which carries hoses — was out on a car fire, so the first vehicle to arrive from that firehouse was a ladder truck at 2:49 a.m.

The first engine truck arrived with water two minutes later, according to city records. Residents, though, complained Tuesday that many more crucial minutes elapsed before any water was flowing.

"By the time the hoses were connected, all of these homes were already engulfed in flames," said Grace Young, 44, who lives across the street from where the children died, and was awakened by heat and light from the blaze. She was among the first to call 911.

The unit sent to the car fire was redirected to the scene, and arrived at 2:52 a.m., according to a timeline released by the department.

"Now you're asking our heroes to be superheroes. They're human beings too," newly appointed Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said Tuesday at a news conference.

The victims included families from Liberia and Sierra Leone. One Liberian family lost twin 4-year-old girls, while another lost a 4-year-old son and newborn staying in the same house as the twins.

"It's pathetic, it's pathetic, because it's happened before," said the Rev. Adolphus Capehart, referring to a nearby fire that killed seven people, including several members of the Liberian community, in 2008. "We understand that things happen, but to have all these houses in flames, and the fire department two seconds away?"

"This time around, we're not going to be silent," said Capehart, a fellow Liberian who urged the community to demand answers, but to do so peacefully. About 250 people took to the streets Monday over the fire; a few clashed with police, who were out en masse.

The fire occurred as the city's Fourth of July celebrations were winding down. Several residents said they heard firecrackers on the block that day, but officials have not yet determined the cause of the fire.

Solomon Johnson, 54, a former teacher from Sierra Leone, said the fire started in a foam-and-cloth couch on his front porch. He woke up in time to flee out the back with his brother, and said his brother went next door to help the twins' mother and her older children escape.

Johnson criticized the response time, and said he watched a lone firefighter spend several minutes struggling to open a nearby fire hydrant.

"When there's an emergency situation, one minute seems like an hour," said Sawyer.

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