It’s not just another empty lot in Kensington where such sights are common. The trash-littered parcel, which had been the long-vacant Buck Hosiery building and an adjacent furniture store, is a shrine.
A year ago Tuesday, Fire Lt. Robert Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney, two of the city’s best and bravest, perished in a fire at the site. The commemoration of their tragic deaths was made even more poignant by the weekend death of another firefighter, 53-year-old Capt. Michael Goodwin.
All three men lived in the Northeast.
In a low-key ceremony, men and women in the dark blue uniforms of the Fire Department lined up late Tuesday morning to salute Neary and Sweeney and their families. Quietly, a wreath was presented, and roses were placed on a spotless white cloth held down against a strong breeze by bricks left over from the now demolished buildings.
“Thank you for caring so much,” said a tearful Diane Neary, widow of the fallen lieutenant as she looked at the scores of firefighters and paramedics lined up in front of her and Sweeney’s father and mother, David and Marian. “I love all you guys.”
Neary and Sweeney were from Ladder 10 on Kensington Avenue. Firefighter Francis Chaney II, also of Ladder 10, and Firefighter Patrick Nally of Ladder 16, were injured in the blaze.
The men had been among the firefighters who were called to the scene to battle the 3:13 a.m. five-alarm fire in the six-story Buck Hosiery building on the 1800 block of York St.
Because of the intensity of the fire and high winds, flames had spread to nearby buildings. Neary, Sweeney, Chaney and Nally were working to contain flare-ups inside the adjacent Giamari Furniture Store, at Boston Street and Kensington Avenue, when that building collapsed.
“May your thoughts for that day,” Mrs. Neary said, choking back tears, “may God erase them gently.”
The gathering at the site of the men’s deaths was much more an in-house and family event than the very public and very crowded ceremony outside City Hall less than an hour later to honor Goodwin, Sweeney and Neary.
Daniel Sweeney’s mother, Marian, said her family didn’t just lose a son last year.
“We’ve lost one of my babies, and a mom should not lose a baby,” she said. “He was 25 years old.”
Marian Sweeney said she and her husband struggle to go on “as we look around the house and there’s something missing.”
Diane Neary addressed the firefighters and city officials, expressing bitterness mixed with sorrow.
“I don’t know how many more of these gentlemen have to die,” she said. “I don’t know how many more broken hearts, families and brothers in the brotherhood can be broken. I don’t know when the city of Philadelphia will start, and stop, and think what these men deserve. They deserve support. They deserve not a pat on the back or some broken words. They need to be paid their full due.”
City firefighters have been working without a contract for four years, and the administration of Mayor Nutter has repeatedly appealed to the courts the binding arbitration that awarded them raises.
“Until it hits your own family,” Neary said, “you have no idea what it’s like to lose someone. I pray that our Father in this City of Brotherly Love — and I know he’s listening — will look down, soften hearts, show compassion, break hearts that are made of stone and ignorance, and that he would honor everyone that’s here fairly and honestly. Give these men their just reward. … And honor this fellowship of firemen.”
Robert Neary was a 38-year fire department veteran. He is survived by his wife and their three children, Robert, Christopher and Dianne. Daniel Sweeney followed in the footsteps of his father, retired Fire Capt. David Sweeney, and joined the Philadelphia Fire Department in July 2006. Goodwin, a 29-year veteran, is survived by his wife, Kelly, a son, Mike Jr., and a daughter, Dorothy Dunn. His family also attended the wreath-laying ceremony at City Hall. ••
ON THE WEB:To view video of the family and friends of Fire Capt. Michael Goodwin addressing the public, visit the Northeast Times YouTube site at www.youtube.com/user/NortheastTimes ••
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org