After the fire

Neigh­bors came to­geth­er on Sunday to mourn the deaths of fire­fight­ers Daniel Sweeney and Lt. Robert Neary, who died fight­ing the blaze that tore through the old Buck Ho­siery build­ing on Monday, April 9.

The fatal fire early last week at the va­cant Thomas W. Buck Ho­siery build­ing in Kens­ing­ton is an­oth­er story of heart­break, but dur­ing a me­mori­al held Sunday, com­munity lead­ers said it also could be a story of hope. 

The April 9 fire at the long-va­cant ware­house at York and Jasper streets res­ul­ted in the deaths of two fire­fight­ers — Lt. Robert Neary, 60, and Daniel Sweeney, 25, who were as­signed to Lad­der 10 at Kens­ing­ton and Castor av­en­ues — and brought the com­munity to­geth­er for a me­mori­al ser­vice on Sunday, just a few steps from the ashes of the des­troyed build­ing.

“To­night is, above all, a mes­sage to the fam­il­ies,” Jeff Carpin­eta, pres­id­ent of the East Kens­ing­ton Neigh­bors As­so­ci­ation, told about 150 neigh­bors who held lighted candles.

“There is love here in this neigh­bor­hood and there is deep grat­it­ude. Those (fire­fight­ers) didn’t lay down their lives for no one or noth­ing, or for an­oth­er bad story in Kens­ing­ton,” con­tin­ued Carpin­eta, adding that the night would be a trib­ute to all first-re­spon­ders. “They gave it up for us and the land that we love.” 

In memory of the fallen fire­fight­ers, Jesse Gard­ner, a former vo­lun­teer fire­fight­er and an artist, held an open­ing that even­ing at his gal­lery at 2012-24 E. Ari­zona St.

Fea­tur­ing por­traits of hero­ic fire­fight­ers — in­clud­ing some who per­ished dur­ing the Sept. 11, 2001 ter­ror at­tacks on the World Trade Cen­ter — the gal­lery ex­hib­i­tion was in­ten­ded to give re­cog­ni­tion to an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated group of civil ser­vants, he said.

“Let us pay trib­ute to fire­fight­ers that have for­saken a life of ma­ter­i­al gain, safety and com­fort and chose to enter the most dan­ger­ous arena of all, so their fel­low cit­izens can be pro­tec­ted,” Gard­ner told those gathered on Sunday. “Can there be a bet­ter defin­i­tion of hero­ism than that?”

Carpin­eta said the hard­est work is yet ahead for the com­munity if neigh­bors hope to make a dif­fer­ence by push­ing for solu­tions to de­cay­ing, va­cant build­ings and the safety prob­lems they pose. He said it is now up to the com­munity to step up by ask­ing ques­tions of those in city gov­ern­ment and of each oth­er.

Carpin­eta urged res­id­ents to spend some time at the Lad­der 10 fire­house and let the fire­fight­ers know how much they are val­ued.

“We are Phil­adelphi­ans. We are a spe­cial place called East Kens­ing­ton,” he said. “There is plenty of love here and we will turn this thing around.”

Ac­cord­ing to Re­becca Blake, co-dir­ect­or of Beacon, a neigh­bor­hood faith group at Mem­ph­is and Cum­ber­land streets, the key as­pect to heal­ing after this dis­aster is to build a sense of com­munity.

“When you’re here for a long time, you get apathet­ic about it and (think) that noth­ing is go­ing to change, and hope­fully this will be an agent for (change),” she said.

Carpin­eta said the safety risks posed by old and va­cant build­ings can scar a com­munity if something goes wrong.

“When this cat­egory of a build­ing burns,” Carpin­eta said, “it in­flicts massive dam­age on a neigh­bor­hood. It des­troys parts of our his­tory, part of our soul, and it dam­ages our in­fra­struc­ture.”

He noted that the fire at the Buck build­ing wasn’t an isol­ated in­cid­ent — for ex­ample, the former Edis­on High School build­ing at Sev­enth and Le­high streets burned down last Au­gust.

“The (fact is), they will burn, one by one,” Carpin­eta said. “If you Google ‘Phil­adelphia fact­ory fire,’ it’s as­ton­ish­ing, the se­quence of events in the past twenty years. In the past three years alone there have been four in this neigh­bor­hood, and every time they in­flict worse and worse dam­age.”

However, Carpin­eta ad­ded, simply fight­ing with City Hall about prob­lem prop­er­ties could pro­voke a box­ing match between the com­munity and the city that would not be help­ful. In­stead, he said, it is time for con­ver­sa­tion and heal­ing, and to be thank­ful that more lives wer­en’t lost.

ldquo;As hor­rif­ic as it was,” he said, “it could have been ten times worse. Without the sac­ri­fice with the fire­fight­ers, this could have been a fire that people would be talk­ing about across the coun­try for the next hun­dred years.”

Not­ing that the fire and the deaths of Neary and Sweeney had made head­lines across the coun­try, Carpin­eta said it is im­port­ant for the com­munity to ex­press ap­pre­ci­ation for the hard work of city fire­fight­ers.

ldquo;It’s already in the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion na­tion­ally, and it should be, but there could have been wide­spread loss of life and de­struc­tion,” Carpin­eta ad­ded. “That’s where my thank you and, I think, the com­munity’s ‘thank-yous’ come from.” ••

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