"It looked like the sky was on fire"

After the fire that burned the Buck Ho­siery build­ing in Kens­ing­ton to the ground, neigh­bors have been asked to in­spect their homes, es­pe­cially their roofs, be­cause em­bers from the fire could have dam­aged prop­er­ties throughout the com­munity.

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 hmit­man@bsmphilly.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 tpotts@nk­cdc.org


You can reach at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.

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