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.” ••