February 3, 2014: Lieutenant Robert Neary and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney lost their lives on April 9, 2012 fighting a five alarm fire at the former Thomas Buck Hosiery factory warehouse on York Street. While two of our bravest and finest are no longer here because they were protecting the city, sadly it’s a lack of protection from the city itself that helped lead to the fatal fire.
After a lengthy, nearly two-year investigation, a Grand Jury has determined that it is not possible to file any criminal charges for the deaths of Lt. Neary and Firefighter Sweeney, or for the serious injuries of two other firefighters that day in 2012. The Grand Jurors wrote in their findings “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 is currently no appropriate criminal penalty for the tale of misdeeds we found. While the building owners violated virtually every regulation that got in their way, they were never held accountable for doing so, and we do not believe that the available evidence can establish that their flagrant code violations and tax delinquencies caused the fire that eventually destroyed their property and the firemen’s lives. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned. Had city departments done their job, these deaths might never have occurred.”
The first and most culpable people mentioned in the Grand Jury findings are Nahman and Michael Lichtenstein. The father and son real estate moguls from New York purchased the former Thomas W. Buck Hosiery factory in 2008 with the promise of re-developing the property. Instead of helping what was seen as an up-and-coming neighborhood, the Lichtensteins were unscrupulous from the start. They agreed to pay $730,000 for the property, but only delivered half of that money at closing. The rest of the money, which took another three years to get, was eventually settled on with the seller for a fraction on the dollar.
From the moment the Lichtensteins took over control of the property it was clear they did not care about the physical state of the building, or the neighborhood surrounding the property. They hired supposed caretakers, but didn’t allow them to properly provide maintenance for the huge property. They turned off the electricity, allowed scrappers to steal cooper and wiring, and did nothing to keep squatters out of the building. The Lichtensteins did not pay one dime in real estate taxes, or in water and sewer fees, since they bought the York Street property in 2008. By the time of the fire in 2012, the delinquent taxes totaled near $60,000, and water and sewer fees $13,000. In fact the Lichtensteins are still the legal owners of 1817-41 York Street, which is now only a vacant lot, and still owe the City over $100,000 for the demolition of the burned-out shell.
However, 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. And fire experts were unable to determine the precise cause of the fire, or even where it started. The evidence currently available therefore presented significant barriers to an attempt to prove criminal causation beyond a reasonable doubt.
There was no doubt, though, about the actions, and inactions, of various municipal agencies, in particular the Department of Licenses and Inspections. As the grand jury report details, L&I repeatedly failed to act on serious building and fire code violations that piled up on York Street. Inspections were performed, notices were issued – but nothing ever happened. Despite their regular complaints, neighbors were left with a giant eyesore that soon became a fire trap.
Meanwhile other city agencies, the revenue and law departments, failed either to collect on huge debts owed by the owners, or to seize the property from them. At one point, for example, the city sent overdue tax notices to the same incorrect address, four times in a row – even as other city officials had the proper address in their records.
Finally, the grand jury also heard evidence, consistent with a report from federal investigators, about shortcomings in fire operations while the blaze was being battled. Standard operating procedure called for the creation of a collapse zone near the building’s exterior wall. While the zone was set up, it was not enforced at a crucial moment, when members of Ladder Company 10 were allowed to enter an adjacent structure in the shadow of the wall. The wall fell, causing death and injury. The grand jury concluded that better training and technology might have helped prevent the tragedy.
The grand jurors mourn with the families for their loss, and hope that the agencies in question will take this opportunity for true reform. The evidence presented, however, suggested that improvements have not yet occurred, despite these deaths.