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. ••