The firefighters’ union, Local 22, said Mayor Michael Nutter and Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers “lied” last week to protect themselves as the union pushes to prove claims that mistakes were made in the fire department’s response to the fatal East Kensington warehouse fire on April 9.
“Commissioner Ayers lied to cover his own butt and [Mayor Michael] Nutter lied to protect his staff,” said Frank Keel, spokesperson for Local 22 in a meeting with reporters Thursday, May 30.
The mayor’s office, in a statement sent to press outlets last week, rebuffed the union’s claims, restating that a “collapse zone” safety measure was, in fact, established and suggesting instead that the union representatives had an ulterior motive in their discussion of the events of April 9.
At the May 30 meeting in front of City Hall, Keel noted that union representatives disputed the fire department’s claims that a “collapse zone” was ever established around the perimeter of the Buck Hosiery building, at York and Jasper streets in Kensington, when it burned to the ground last month, taking the lives of Lieutenant Robert Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney.
“The three of them failed, and they failed fatally,” Keel said, pointing a finger at Ayers and deputy commissioners John Devlin and Ernest Hargett.
On Thursday, union representatives presented a new photo that purportedly shows Devlin, acting incident commander that evening, standing well within the area where, they said, a collapse zone should have been set up.
As Mike Bresnan, recording secretary for Local 22, pointed out, there are no visible markings in areas surrounding the building serving as evidence of a collapse zone.
“A collapse zone should be about fifty to a hundred feet behind where they are standing now,” Bresnan said, pointing to the image of Devlin.
“And they are saying there was a collapse zone set up? Ridiculous.”
According to a fire service training manual union officials presented last week, a collapse zone is required as the first of three concentric safety zones that should be established by the incident commander to provide an “adequate level of safety and accountability for all participants at the incident.”
The first zone the manual calls for is a collapse zone, which according to Bresnan, should be a perimeter of about one and a half that of the height of the walls.
The manual calls for this zone to be established with banner tape or rope.
“Everyone should remain outside of this area,” reads the manual.
A second zone outside of that should then be made to give fire personnel an area to work, and beyond that is a third zone for media and spectators.
Bresnan said contrary to claims made by fire officials, in no photos of that evening is there any evidence of an initial collapse zone.
“Nobody should be in that zone,” he said. “Every photo we have shows no collapse zone was established.”
Further, Bresnan said that firefighters should have not only not been in the collapse zone, but at no time should any firefighter have entered the building as there were no people in need of rescue inside.
“What was in there? That building stored $99 mattresses. Was there anything to save in there?” he asked a gathered crowd.
Union members then claimed that if the fallen firefighters had gone into an established collapse zone, as fire department officials claim existed, then Neary and Sweeney were recklessly endangering their own lives.
“That means they [fallen firefighters Neary and Sweeney] acted as cowboys and disregarded their own lives,” Keel said. “We dare them, dare them, to suggest that.”
The statement from the mayor’s office read:
“The leaders of Local 22 have once again dishonored two fallen heroes. Their real issue is anger over not having a contract. We’ve made it very clear that there was a collapse zone, that a top flight command structure was in place and that safety officers were on the scene.”
Keel said the union is pushing for an expedited study of the incident by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is currently underway but is expected to take at least several months.
“Right now, we just want justice,” Keel said. “The current leadership of the fire department has been a failure.”
Local 22 has submitted the photographs they presented last week to NIOSH in hopes of speeding up the study.
Star staff reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.