NEW: The building failed inspections and its owner didn't pay taxes, a city official says
NEW: The city was after the owner in court, and the property was up for public auction
NEW: The firefighters who died were Robert Neary, 60, and Daniel Sweeney, 25
3 other firefighters were injured in the five-alarm Philadelphia blaze
Check out CNN affiliate WPVI-TV in Philadelphia for updates on the fire.
Two Philadelphia firefighters died early Monday and three others were injured after a wall collapsed in a building that had been cited repeatedly for safety violations and was set to be sold at auction later this year, officials said.
The collapse occurred about 5:50 a.m. as the five were inside a furniture store, said Deputy Fire Commissioner Ernest Hargett Jr.
Four of the firefighters were trapped inside, he said, but the fifth was able to get free. Firefighters were forced to move brick and timber by hand and cut through some materials to rescue the others, Hargett said.
The initial report of the blaze came in at 3:13 a.m., Hargett said. Responding firefighters issued four additional alarms as the flames burned out of control for two hours and embers set surrounding buildings ablaze.
The furniture store was one of the surrounding buildings, he said, and the five were “investigating an extension of fire” inside when the collapse occurred.
In a press conference later Monday, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison said city officials received complaints last November about the conditions in the main property involved in the blaze.
Inspectors visited the building six days later, found problems and cited the property’s owner. When they went back in December and found nothing had been done, they issued another citation – with an identical scenario of inaction followed by a citation playing out 30 days later.
The city pushed to bring the owners to court after the third citation, Gillison said, with a court date likely due sometime in May.
Meanwhile, the building’s owner had failed to pay $60,000 in taxes and another $12,000 in water fees, the deputy mayor said. After citations, fines and a court order, the building was being scheduled for a “sheriff’s sale” – a public auction for back taxes – likely in June or July, said Gillison.
“We were not going to drop the ball on this one, and we did not,” he said, saying that city officials were responsive all along to residents’ complaints about the property.
At Mayor Michael Nutter’s urging, the city plans to contact District Attorney Seth Williams to determine if the owner’s failure to maintain the building was “risking a catastrophe and whether this amounts to criminal negligence,” according to Gillison.
Richard Negrin, the city’s managing director, said investigators will determine if the fire was caused by arson or negligence.
He stressed the duty of building owners, in this case and others, to abide by city code to ensure their properties are safe and secure.
“It is first and foremost the responsibility of the building owner to be in compliance with the code,” Negrin said.
The firefighters who died in Monday’s blaze were 60-year-old Robert Neary and 25-year-old Daniel Sweeney, the firefighter’s union and Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said. “We have a veteran firefighter and we have a new firefighter,” Ayers told reporters.
The IAFF Local 22 union identified two firefighters “seriously injured” in the incident as Patrick Nally, who is in critical but stable condition, and Francis Chaney, who is in stable condition.
“Right now, we’re asking for prayers for the families,” Ayers said. “We’re asking for everybody to be supportive. We’re asking that you respect the firefighters, their families, their lives.”
The last time multiple Philadelphia firefighters died in the line of duty was 2004, Ayers said, and the last firefighter death was in 2006.
“This is absolutely a tragedy,” the commissioner said. “No one wants to lose anyone.”