The owners of the old hosiery building that burned down in Kensington today, killing two firefighters, had been cited four times by Philadelphia's Licenses & Inspection department, according to Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison. He says they owed $72,000 in taxes and utilities and were facing court dates with the city and a threat that their property would be put on the auction block in June or July.
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"Was this arson? Was this negligence? We'll find that out in the days to come," City Manager Rich Negrin said in an afternoon news conference. "But it concerns me. . .that we were about to be in court on two separate matters with the landowner."
Lt. Robert Neary, 60, and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney, 25, were killed fighting the Monday morning fire on York Street right near Jasper. They'd helped put out the five-alarmer at the old Buck Hosiery building which city records show are owned by York Street Property Development.
But the fire spread to a furniture store next door, which the crew at Ladder 10 also put out. When they went back to make sure it was still extinguished, a wall collapsed, then roof, burying Sweeney and Neary under tons of timber and bricks.
L&I Commissioner Fran Burns said citizens and neighbors complained about the building in November of 2011. Six days later, an L&I inspector went out, inspected and cited the owners for failure to secure their property. This pattern continued two more times in early December and mid January. Each time the owners were cited and each time, Burns said, the city got no response.
"We have a very clear policy which we follow which is three inspections from our department and then we're going to follow up in court," Burns said. Gillison said as the city prepared to pursue court action, they went out to the property a fourth time to see if anything had been corrected and it had not. The owners were cited a fourth time on March 29.
Late in the day, a statement was emailed to the media on behalf of attorney David Feuerstein who represents York Street Property Development LP:
"This is an unspeakable tragedy. Our condolences and heartfelt prayers go out to the families of Lieutenant Neary and Firefighter Sweeney, and to their grieving colleagues at the Philadelphia Fire Department. We are cooperating, and will continue to do so, with all law enforcement and government agencies as they investigate this fire."
City officials said the same property owners, who live in Brooklyn, have more than 30 other properties in Philadelphia.