Philadelphia building collapse kills veteran firefighter, injures 5
Four firefighters and an inspector were hurt and transported to a hospital, where two were listed in critical but stable condition
Duty Death: Sean Williamson - [Philadelphia]
End of Service: 18/06/2022
Max Marin, Frank Kummer and Anthony R. Wood
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — A 51-year-old Philadelphia firefighter was killed in an early-morning building collapse Saturday that has devastated the Fire Department and left a neighborhood shaken. Two other firefighters were hospitalized in critical but stable condition.
City officials said that 27-year veteran Lt. Sean Williamson was killed after he was trapped in the rubble along with other firefighters. In all, four firefighters and a Department of Licenses and Inspections inspector suffered injuries.
The collapse in the city’s Fairhill section followed a fire at a popular pizza shop that evidently had undergone construction without permits in recent years.
“The Philadelphia Fire Department is grieving with the family, friends, and community for all those affected by this tragedy,” said Fire Commissioner Adam K. Thiel. “It is not possible to express in words what we feel at this time.”
“It’s going to be a rough several weeks,” an emotional Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said at a media briefing just before 8 a.m. near the collapse site on the 300 block of West Indiana Avenue in North Philadelphia.
The mayor’s office gave the following account:
Fire crews were called to the scene shortly before 2 a.m. Eight people were evacuated safe. The blaze was declared under control in about an hour, but the building collapsed shortly after 3 a.m. while firefighters still were at the scene.
The rescued firefighters and the inspector were taken to Temple University Hospital where firefighters Robert Brennan Jr. — who along with Williamson was trapped under debris — and Dennis Bailey, were listed in critical but stable condition. The inspector, Thomas Rybakowski, Lt. Clarence Johnson and Lt. Sylvester Burton, were treated at the hospital and released.
Williamson was pronounced dead at the scene at 6:45 a.m., the mayor’s office said.
“This is a heartbreaking day for our city,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement.
Murphy said that the collapse followed what appeared to be a “pretty routine” box fire. He said the five who survived escaped at different times, one of them jumping from the second story of the building.
The fire marshal has begun an extensive investigation, Murphy said, but no foul play is suspected at this time.
“You can’t predict this,” Murphy said. “This was just a catastrophic accident that has really hurt our department.”
The circumstances were similar to the death of Lt. Matthew LeTourneau, who died on Jan. 6, 2018, while battling a fire in a rowhouse on the 2200 block of North Colorado Street in North Philadelphia. The second floor collapsed and LeTourneau was trapped under the rubble. When firefighters and paramedics reached him about 30 minutes later, he was dead.
Neighbors said Star Pizza & Seafood had opened at the three-story corner property at Third Street and West Indiana Avenue five months ago.
Half a block from the collapse, Wanda Rivera was awake watching TV shortly before 2 a.m. when she heard sirens and trucks rushing toward the pizza parlor.
“At first it was just a lot of smoke so we thought there was a fire,” Rivera said. “They put out the fire then we saw the firemen leaving. Then they came rushing back again.”
Fire dispatch audio indicates most of the flames had been put out by 2:15 a.m. Over the next hour, engines tended to reports of other blazes across the city while a handful of firefighters remained at the Indiana Street fire scene with a building inspector. Around 3:25, a commander blared across the radio: “Emergency. Three-story collapse. Members inside.”
Fire engines and medics rushed back to the scene, where they found the smoldering building had collapsed like a pancake. One by one they identified survivors in the debris — whisking them off to area hospitals to treat with reports of severe back pain, abdominal pain, leg pain — but the search for the fifth firefighter would carry into the hours after dawn.
By 7 a.m., first responders blanketed the blocks around Third and Indiana, where dozens of firefighters, police and paramedics stood in a near-motionless crowd after hours of sifting through the rubble. The smell of burnt wood still lingered in the morning air.
At 7:19, the mass of firefighters slowly dispersed from the rubble, downcast and wiping tears from their eyes as they exchanged hugs. Many were speechless; few words were said as the rescue effort appeared to have come to a tragic conclusion.
Patricia Sermarini rushed to the scene when she saw the alert on the Citizens app about the collapse and the trapped first responders.
She said her son-in-law, a firefighter, was on the morning shift. As she pushed her way toward the edge of the taped-off scene on American Street, she said all she could think was, “I just need to see him.”
Relief swept through her when she saw her son-in-law approaching from the site of the collapse. She said he had been one of the firefighters on scene helping with the rescue effort — but he had not been injured in the building collapse. He was filthy with soot and dust, she said, and she hugged him immediately.
Moments later, Sermarini said she saw firefighters pull a body from the rubble.
”It’s so terrible,” she said. “This is so hard for them. They just want to get home to their families.”
The building reportedly had a pizza parlor on the first floor and apartments above. Property records indicate the property had been sold in September 2021 for $120,000, months before Star Pizza & Seafood opened its doors.
The owner of Star Pizza & Seafood — listed as Khalil Al-Ashraf in property records — could not immediately be reached for comment.
City records indicate no permits have been issued for construction and electrical work for the three-story property in years. Yet photos from a recent real estate listing show a new electrical panel on the exterior wall along Third Street, as well as a metal staircase leading to an addition on the second floor — none of which appear in Google Street View photos of the building taken in 2019.
Records further indicate the property does not have active rental permits despite the active apartments upstairs. Fire officials did not say if there were tenants living on the upper floors at the time of the fire.
City building inspectors also cited the property for numerous violations in May 2019, flagging issues with the kitchen hood, fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, and open junction boxes. Those violations were listed as outstanding in city records again in June 2021, though it remains unclear whether investigators have visited the property since it changed hands seven months ago.
Since the 2019 inspection, the city has lost a third of its building inspectors, even as concerns about dangerous building conditions and shoddy construction practices have increased. Unlicensed rental units and unsanctioned construction have been endemic since long before the staff exodus. The Department of Licenses and Inspection did not immediately respond to questions from the Inquirer.
Neighbors said Lucky Garden Chinese restaurant had operated at the building for about 12 years prior to the takeout pizza and seafood restaurant.
Herman Soto, Wanda Rivera’s husband, said Star Pizza had a good reputation among neighbors. “It was really good pizza,” Soto said. “The owners are nice people.”
Xavier “Sabi” Rivera said his parents used to own the building where they ran a pool hall and arcade in the mid-1990s.
Rivera remarked that a longtime metal staircase on the side of the building that residents used to access the upper floor had been removed during renovations, but he did not give a time frame.
©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer