No criminal charges filed in blaze that killed firefighters

An in­vest­ig­at­ing grand jury con­vened by Phil­adelphia Dis­trict At­tor­ney Seth Wil­li­ams has chosen not to re­com­mend crim­in­al charges in con­nec­tion with a 2012 ar­son that des­troyed a va­cant Kens­ing­ton ware­house and claimed the lives of two city fire­fight­ers.

But in a re­port re­leased on Monday, the jury is­sued scath­ing cri­ti­cisms of the Brook­lyn-based prop­erty own­ers and city agen­cies for al­low­ing the former Thomas Buck Ho­siery fact­ory to de­teri­or­ate in the years pri­or to the fire without ef­fect­ive city code en­force­ment.

In the re­port, jur­ors stated, “This grand jury re­port is really about a fail­ure of gov­ern­ment — the fail­ure of Phil­adelphia ad­min­is­trat­ive agen­cies to ac­com­plish the ba­sic func­tions for which they ex­ist. Un­for­tu­nately, we have re­luct­antly con­cluded that there cur­rently is no ap­pro­pri­ate crim­in­al pen­alty for the tale of mis­deeds we found.”

Fire Lt. Robert Neary and Fire­fight­er Daniel Sweeney, both res­id­ents of the North­east, per­ished in the five-alarm blaze, while two oth­er fire­fight­ers were in­jured. The fire oc­curred on April 9, 2012, at York and Jasper streets. Neary and Sweeney were both as­signed to Lad­der 10 and entered a fur­niture store ad­ja­cent to the burn­ing ware­house at­tempt­ing to stop the flames from spread­ing. A brick ex­ter­i­or wall from the five-story ware­house col­lapsed onto the fur­niture store, trap­ping the fire­fight­ers in­side. Neary and Sweeney died at the scene.

Lead­ers of the city’s fire­fight­ers uni­on, Loc­al 22 of the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Fire Fight­ers, had hoped for crim­in­al charges against the fath­er and son own­ers of the prop­erty, Nah­man and Mi­chael Licht­en­stein.

“The grand jury re­port provides page after page of testi­mony in­dic­at­ing that the own­ers were acutely aware of the prob­lems with the York Street build­ing, but made a con­scious de­cision not to do any­thing to rem­edy the mul­tiple prob­lems,” Loc­al 22 Pres­id­ent Joe Schulle said dur­ing a news con­fer­ence Tues­day.

Schulle noted that neigh­bors com­plained to the city about the dan­ger­ous con­di­tions of the va­cant ware­house and that the De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tion cited the own­ers sev­en times for code vi­ol­a­tions lead­ing up to the fatal fire. There were dozens of squat­ters liv­ing there; thieves had ripped wir­ing and plumb­ing from the build­ing; and the build­ing was not prop­erly se­cured, Schulle said, cit­ing in­form­a­tion in the grand jury re­port.

With May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter in South Africa for a con­fer­ence, Deputy May­or Ever­ett Gil­lis­on on Monday said that the ad­min­is­tra­tion will “care­fully con­sider” a series of le­gis­lat­ive and pro­ced­ur­al re­com­mend­a­tions in­cluded in the re­port re­gard­ing safety is­sues. 

Al­though the ac­tions of prop­erty own­ers do not amount to crim­in­al con­duct, the fath­er and son “real es­tate moguls” are “the first and most culp­able people men­tioned in the grand jury find­ings,” Wil­li­ams said in a prin­ted state­ment.

The Licht­en­steins bought the site in 2008 “with the prom­ise of re­devel­op­ing the prop­erty,” Wil­li­ams said.

In­stead, the own­ers failed to pay the full amount of the agreed sale price of $730,000; they hired “sup­posed care­takers” but did not al­low them to provide prop­er main­ten­ance for the prop­erty; they turned off elec­tri­city, al­lowed thieves to steal wir­ing from the build­ing and “did noth­ing to keep squat­ters out of the build­ing,” Wil­li­ams said. The Licht­en­steins did not pay prop­erty taxes or wa­ter and sew­er fees on the prop­erty, ac­cord­ing to the pro­sec­utor. At the time of the fire, they al­legedly owed about $60,000 in back taxes and $13,000 to the wa­ter de­part­ment. Now, they al­legedly owe the city an­oth­er $100,000 for the de­moli­tion of the burned-out build­ing. They still own the prop­erty, which is now an empty lot.

Wil­li­ams said that con­tra­dict­ory grand jury testi­mony and the in­ab­il­ity of fire in­vest­ig­at­ors to identi­fy the spe­cif­ic cause of the blaze posed obstacles to pro­sec­ut­ing any­one.

“While the own­ers’ greed set the stage for the tragedy, city in­spect­ors test­i­fied — con­trary to a moun­tain of oth­er evid­ence — that the prop­erty was prop­erly se­cured and sealed,” Wil­li­ams said. “And fire ex­perts were un­able to de­term­ine the pre­cise cause of the fire, or even where it star­ted.”

Schulle ar­gued that crim­in­al neg­li­gence should be a con­sid­er­a­tion and that a crim­in­al court should be al­lowed to make a de­term­in­a­tion in the case.

“Some­times, the fight is worth fight­ing, even if you lose,” Schulle said. “If you fight and lose, we’ll still stand be­hind you. This is a worthy fight.”

Ac­cord­ing to the pro­sec­utor, the grand jury found that the city rev­en­ue and law de­part­ments failed to col­lect the own­ers’ debts or to seize the prop­erty from them as a leg­al re­course. Mean­while, the De­part­ment of Li­censes and In­spec­tion “failed to act on ser­i­ous build­ing and fire code vi­ol­a­tions that piled up on York Street,” Wil­li­ams said. 

The jury also heard testi­mony that fire de­part­ment of­fi­cials mis-man­aged the fire scene, con­sist­ent with an in­de­pend­ent in­vest­ig­a­tion by the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Oc­cu­pa­tion­al Safety and Health. Spe­cific­ally, the de­part­ment failed to en­force a re­stric­ted “col­lapse zone” near the build­ing’s ex­ter­i­or walls. In­stead, mem­bers of Lad­der 10 were per­mit­ted to enter the ad­ja­cent store “in the shad­ow of the wall,” Wil­li­ams said.

“The grand jury con­cluded that bet­ter train­ing and tech­no­logy might have helped pre­vent the tragedy,” Wil­li­ams said.

Last Thursday, City Coun­cil­man Den­nis O’Bri­en in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion that would amend the city’s fire code to cre­ate a data­base of in­form­a­tion about large, va­cant and po­ten­tially haz­ard­ous prop­er­ties throughout the city. Fire­fight­ers would have ac­cess to floor plans, con­di­tions and dangers at each prop­erty be­fore re­spond­ing to a fire.

Deputy May­or Gil­lis­on said on Monday that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has already es­tab­lished a Spe­cial In­de­pend­ent Com­mis­sion to re­view L&I prac­tices, policies and pro­ced­ures with re­com­mend­a­tions ex­pec­ted in June. Also, L&I and fire de­part­ment of­fi­cials have re­cently be­gun meet­ing reg­u­larly to identi­fy and ad­dress dan­ger­ous build­ing con­di­tions, Gil­lis­on said. ••

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