Philly reviewing other buildings after deadly fire

By Patrick Walters

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 10 2012 1:55 p.m. MDT

Firefighters battle a fire in a warehouse on York Street near Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia early Monday, April 9, 2012. Two firefighters died after a wall collapsed on them while they fought the massive early-morning blaze.

Joseph Kaczmarek, Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Officials promised Tuesday to conduct a careful review of dozens of other large buildings across the city and look into whether criminal charges are warranted as fire marshals search for the cause of a blaze at a vacant warehouse that killed two firefighters.

The fire broke out early Monday in the city's Kensington section. The firefighters, 60-year-old Lt. Robert Neary and 25-year-old Daniel Sweeney, were killed in a collapse at a nearby furniture store where the flames had spread.

As investigators sifted through the rubble Tuesday, Executive Chief Richard Davison said it could take a long time to determine the cause, especially considering the size of the six-story building.

Mayor Michael Nutter said the city is conducting reviews of about 30 other buildings owned by developers that own the warehouse. The city will also conduct a survey of scores of other large buildings like the warehouse where the fire started, he said.

"There is some level of neglect here," Nutter said, giving his perspective on the owners' role.

District Attorney Seth Williams said more investigating must be done before a decision can be made on whether someone could be criminally responsible.

"It would be premature for me to say anything about criminal prosecution," Williams said.

The warehouse property's corporate owner, York Street Property Development, had been cited three times since November, and a fourth citation was issued after a March 29 inspection following a community meeting, according to city officials. The city was preparing to take the owner to court as required after the first three violations, officials said, and a sheriff's sale was expected this summer because of about $72,000 in unpaid city and water tax bills.

A spokesman for lawyers representing the owners declined to comment when contacted Tuesday by The Associated Press.

The city's Department of Licenses and Inspections said York Street Property Development had a zoning permit good through July 2013 for an 81-unit development on the site.

Neighbors had complained about people stealing things from the site and sleeping there in recent months.

Some tried to seal up the building themselves, cleaned litter around the premises and reported their concerns to the city over the past year, said Jeff Carpineta, president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association, who said the structure was repeatedly left open and unsecure. The city needs to recognize the potential disaster looming in many large old buildings across the city, Carpineta said.

"When these buildings go on fire, no one should be surprised," he said, adding that he wants to see more efforts to seal up the buildings. "It's about preventing disaster, not the technicalities of who's responsible."

Mike Bresnan, a board member for the local firefighters union, said vacant buildings are a persistent problem for firefighters. He said he hoped the city would develop a type of marking system to indicate to firefighters if a building is structurally unsafe to go inside.

"It all goes back to manpower and enforcement," Bresnan said of the city's efforts to crack down on the owners. "It sounds like they were on these guys' heels. It just sounds like the enforcement didn't have enough."

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