Last week, on the morning of Monday, April 9, a fire tore through the long-vacant Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building at York and Jasper streets, taking the lives of two firefighters, 60-year-old Lt. Robert P. Neary and Daniel Sweeney, 25.
And even the surrounding community felt the heat of those flames.
Swept into the air by heavy winds, hot embers spewed by the blaze settled onto the roofs of homes throughout the area.
“It was raining embers. Some people told us that it looked like the sky was on fire,” said Sandy Salzman, executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corp., which is working to support locals whose homes have been damaged by the fire.
“It melted the rubber off of a roof on Coral Street,” she said.
In fact, according to Tom Potts, neighborhood advisory committee coordinator for the NKCDC, as many as six houses on Jasper Street alone had roofs burned off by embers from the fatal fire.
“I walked through a couple of them,” Potts said of the houses. “They were in bad shape.”
In the aftermath of the fire, NKCDC staffers took to the streets to document damage to homes. The agency is urging neighbors to call with any concerns. (See information at the end of this story.)
The civic agency is especially concerned about homes on Trenton and Coral streets. NKCDC also is compiling a list of area structures like the old Buck building — vacant and decaying structures that could pose a threat to the community if they were the next to burn.
“Then we are going to take it (the list) to City Council and say, ‘We need you to do something about these properties,’” said Potts.
“You’re always concerned about that next building,” Salzman agreed.
In fact, she said, the community has one property that many locals are worried might be the next in danger.
She suggested that if the Buck building fire had been caused by squatters trying to keep warm with an open flame — at this point, the fire department’s investigation is continuing, with no official finding as yet — it’s possible that vagrants could seek another vacant building for warmth.
Salzman said neighbors fear that the next building at similar risk could be an abandoned five-story structure at 2301 N. Front St.
The building — which locals call the “white elephant” —has been vacant for some time. It is positioned so close to the Market-Frankford Elevated Line that a fire there could cause significant damage to the SEPTA rail system, Salzman said.
Unlike the Buck building, the taxes at the “white elephant” site appear to be paid up. Just the same, Salzman said, such buildings that often are owned by entities from outside the area have a way of making residents of the riverwards just a bit uneasy.
ldquo;I just have to laugh sometimes,” she said, with a hint of frustration. “It’s like they just don’t care about our communities.”
In addition to NKCDC’s efforts to help homeowners following last week’s fire, the East Kensington Neighbors Association has formed a group to pursue solutions to the problem of the long-vacant factories and other buildings that plague the community.
“Right now there’s a lot of frustration over this whole thing,” said EKNA treasurer Pat McHugh. “Maybe due to this tragedy, L&I (the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections) will be more responsive.”
L&I had been working with neighbors for some time to seal the Buck building and bring action against its New York-based owners.
Chris Sawyer, local activist who has made fighting blight and illegal signs in the community something of a personal cause, said that L&I had said in November that it planned to pursue the status of the Buck building with its owners, with a possible sheriff’s sale in the months ahead.
While this tragedy is being cited in the community as an example of the dangers posed by long-vacant industrial structures, how can it be prevented?
Sawyer said he’d like to see more transparency in L&I to allow residents better access to the records for properties in their area, thus enabling the public to know whether buildings in their communities are up to code.
As it stands, Sawyer said, much of the pertinent documentation that L&I has on area properties can be obtained only through legal filings. ••
Managing editor Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or email@example.com
In case of damage:
The New Kensington Community Development Corp. is asking neighbors to check their roofs for damage as a result of last week’s fire at the Thomas Buck Building.
Embers can be carried great distances by winds, and even homes outside of the immediate vicinity may have been affected. Owners of homes as far as five blocks from the site of the fire have reported roof damage.
If you have damage to your home and need assistance with an insurance-related issue, contact the Pennsylvania Insurance Department, Bureau of Consumer Services line, at 717-787-3840.
For more information, contact NKCDC member Tom Potts at 215-427-0350 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org