A year after the fire tore through Gesner Street, gutting homes and robbing children of their lives, the smell of burning still lingers in the air, putrid and persistent, never allowing the neighbors a moment to forget the tragedy.
And if the smell of burned-down houses and lost lives wasn’t bad enough, whenever neighbors step out of their rowhomes, they’re met with the view of several blackened houses, still standing precariously, most barely touched since the Fourth of July weekend blaze last year changed the block forever.
“I hate when it rains, because you really smell it,” said one neighbor, Rasheeda Seward, as she sat on her porch one afternoon this week. Seward, a co-block captain on Gesner Street whose house on the south side of the block was ruined inside by the blaze that spread to eight houses in minutes, said she’s been trying to live life as normally as possible since she moved back in just before New Year’s Day.
“I’m still adjusting,” said Seward, a woman of 40 with close-cropped light brown hair and a pretty smile who’s lived on Gesner Street for about a decade, as she tried to unwind with a beer after work. “I’m just happy to be home, but I’m not happy to have to look at that.”
It’s hard to move on, she said, when she’s met with the sight and smell of the devastating fire every day and so much about life on the block isn’t normal. Seward and other neighbors said they won’t even walk on the sidewalk on the south side of the street, where the fire-torn houses still stand, surrounded by singed wreckage.
“It’s horrible,” Seward said. “When I go to the store, I walk in the street. We all walk on the street.”
‘A Safe Haven’
There was a time when Gesner Street, tucked away in the heart of rough-and-tumble Southwest Philadelphia, was a sanctuary for tight-knit neighbors from as near as around the corner and as far as West Africa — a place where the sounds of children playing on row house porches echoed off the brick-and-siding houses.
“The block was like a safe haven,” said Tyrone Watson, a co-block captain who lives on the corner of the block just south of bustling Woodland Avenue. “The kids would be out, and you always knew someone was watching them.”
That Gesner Street is becoming an increasingly distant memory for residents a year after the merciless inferno took the lives of four of the block’s tiniest occupants — 1-month old Taj Jacque, his brother, 4-year-old Patrick Sanyeah Jr., and 4-year-old twins Maria and Marialla Bowah, all children of Liberian immigrant parents — and swallowed up eight homes, leaving several others damaged.
For the people left on the street today, Gesner is limbo, a space caught between the inner-city multicultural oasis it once was and the fiery hell it became on that harrowing night after the Fourth of July, when a couch on a porch somehow caught fire, combusting into the blaze that would reach three alarms and ignite nearly the entire block before it would finally be put out.
“I can’t sleep. I never sleep. I’m always up,” said Grace Young, who has lived across the street from the homes that burned for nearly two decades, as she stood on her porch last week surveying the charred remains that surround the row house she shares with her husband.
Young, whose pink tank top stood out against the backdrop of the blackened rowhomes, said she’ll never forget the night of the fire, which sparked about 2:30 a.m. July 5, 2014 and moved like lightning through the old, wood-flanked porches. She was roused from sleep by the screams of people who jumped out windows in various states of undress to escape the flames and the sound of people banging on front doors to wake residents for fear that the fire would engulf both sides of the street.
Young thought she was dreaming of a sunrise at the shore when she opened her eyes and saw the bright-orange light shining through the cracks in her shades, she said. Instead, she woke up to a fiery nightmare that continues to replay in her mind to this day.
“When I opened the shade, this middle home was just lit up,” she said, pointing across the street toward the soot-covered remains of the houses. “It looked like hands just gripping the house … there was too much fire for anyone to come out the front of their homes. It was covering the front of their houses.”
The fire burned so furiously that Young’s windows shattered and some of the siding on her home melted. Her home is still damaged. Her next-door neighbor, she said, moved off the block because she couldn’t stand to be there anymore, faced every day with the evidence of the tragedy staring back at her.
“She was like, ‘Grace, I’m out of here. I have to go. I can’t keep looking at these homes,’” Young, who couldn’t recall the woman’s name, said. “She knew the family of the kids who died, so it really affected her.”
Fire officials said in the month after the blaze that because the devastation was so severe, they were unable to conclusively determine the blaze’s cause. Murmurs that the culprit was firecrackers lit long after holiday celebrations wrapped up for the night went unconfirmed, but still surface whenever neighbors talk about the fire.
Life Beyond the Flames
On any given day, this is life on Gesner Street now:
The eerie detritus of burned-down lives remains: A hot-pink claw women’s hair clip, a twisted broom and an old deck of playing cards, still in their plastic case, litter porches of the destroyed houses, mixed in with caked soot, charred pieces of wood, concrete and rusted nails. Flimsy wooden boards cover many of the houses’ windows and doors, but several are missing, allowing the sunlight to peek through holes in the roofs and gaping spaces where windows used to be like eyes from above watching the street below.
Birds that have made homes inside the burned-out structures fly in and out of the houses’ poorly secured second-floor windows and wrecked porch roofs all hours of the day, cooing and rustling their feathers. Black-tar soot, beaten into the pavement by months of heat, then rain, then snow, then heat and rain again, covers the porch steps and the sidewalks outside the destroyed homes.
On the porch of the house where little Taj, Patrick, Maria and Marialla died, piles of jagged wooden beams and trash bags sit in a stack as high as the bottom of the first-floor window. Bricks jut out crookedly at the base of the support beam that once held up the roof of the porch where the children played, in a stark juxtaposition with a brand-new window and a white front door with a gold-colored knob that were recently replaced on the house.
A decimated mattress and smoke-stained broken bed frame with a Green Bay Packers sticker on the headboard leaned haphazardly against one porch until last week, when residents say a local property manager — though not one of the houses’ owners — finally sent one of his own garbage trucks to pick it up. A wall outlet and some kind of small electronic — perhaps an alarm clock — both burned nearly unrecognizable, dangle precariously from cords hanging down from the second-floor front windows of houses, swaying slowly in the summer breeze.
Soot-saturated water from a summer rainstorm drips from a blackened awning still left standing above one porch, and the unmistakable smell of burning, kicked up again by rainwater and wind, wafts through the block. Crushed, discarded beer cans and food wrappers dot the singed debris, as leftover pieces of yellow police tape and a bunch of long-since deflated helium balloons hang from the redbrick porch pillars. Several of the porch roofs have been removed, with only their pillars left standing. One, neighbors say — the one where the fire is thought to have started — fell on its own before workers came to remove several of the others that were left structurally unsound by the blaze.
To the eye of someone who isn’t trapped on Gesner Street day in and day out, the building permits printed on white paper watermarked with the City of Philadelphia seal plastered on the front of most of the houses — and the one house in between all the devastation that has been almost completely renovated, like new — might suggest progress. But to the residents the block, those permits and the unfinished work are just one more broken promise, another reminder of the abandonment they feel in their torched corner of a city that so valiantly pledged to help them a year ago, in the days after the fire.
The fire, for a moment, shined an international spotlight onto the small block, where many of the homes are rental properties. In the tragedy’s immediate aftermath last July, a Liberian ambassador, as well as several city leaders including council members, Mayor Nutter and a handful of his high-ranking staffers, visited the block to tour the damage and comfort those who lost homes and loved ones. Philly-born star rapper Meek Mill stopped by to donate money and stand in solidarity with the victims.
Thousands of dollars’ worth of donations poured in at Christ International Baptist Church, on the corner of 65th and Gesner, to be distributed to victims. The Church’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Napoleon Divine, who was instrumental in helping the Liberian families recover, has since died of an unknown illness, according to several neighbors and the church’s Facebook page.
Some officials visited the block again days later, when hundreds of neighbors rioted outside Engine 40, Ladder 4, around the corner from Gesner Street on 65th Street near Woodland Avenue, claiming — erroneously, authorities later said — that firefighters took too long to respond to the blaze.
But for all the attention the fire threw onto tiny Gesner Street back then, neighbors there now they’re back to being forgotten, left alone with the shells of the burned houses still looming above them like skeletons.
“Two weeks after it happened, nobody else came. They left us high and dry,” a young man who declined to give his name said as he smoked on the front steps of a house on Gesner Street on a recent afternoon. “That’s not right. If it happened in Old City or Manayunk, it wouldn’t be that way.”
‘We Were All Family’
The lack of improvement on most of the decimated homes has stymied efforts by neighbors who try to take care of their block to keep it clean.
“We had our block cleanup. It just didn’t look clean,” said Watson, the block captain, as he stood outside the destroyed houses wearing a white baseball cap one afternoon earlier this week. “You clean around it, clean around the dirt. People don’t have the energy. This is going to stay like this for a while.”
Watson said his and other neighbors’ efforts to clear the alleys that bolster Gesner Street’s houses on either side — the overgrowth and trash in which he said stymied firefighters’ efforts during the blaze — have been unsuccessful thus far. He said city officials with the PhillyRising program are on board to help clear the narrow alleyways — but only if neighbors on Paschall and Saybrook avenues, which share them, will help, too.
Watson said so far, he hasn’t had luck connecting with block leaders on the 6500 blocks of Paschall and Saybrook to get moving on the alley clean-up.
Other neighbors agreed the impassable alleys are a problem.
“It’s overgrown,” Kim Walker, a homeowner whose row house was badly damaged in the fire, said. “God forbid if you have to evacuate your house from the back, you can’t get out.”
Neighbors said the burned-out, gutted row houses, with their imposing sight and smell assaulting the senses, haunt them, making it hard to piece their broken lives back together.
On a recent morning, Walker, who bought her house on the south side of the block in 2006, crouched in the street with a trash bag, pulling weeds from the sidewalk. The inside of her house, including her front bedroom and her enclosed porch, were badly damaged when the fire spread to her house — five houses from where it is believed to have originated. She and her daughter got back into the house in December, but Walker said even though it’s nice to be home, it’s difficult to be on the block with the memories of the trauma so fresh.
“It’s not the same. We were all family here,” Walker said. “A lot of us don’t try to walk on that side of the block. It’s hard just to walk past.”
She said her 11-year-old daughter, who was home with her uncle at the time of the fire while Walker was away on vacation in New Orleans with Seward still has nightmares, and the sight of the burned houses doesn’t help.
“That’s something we have to walk through every day. My child has to look at that,” Walker, who works as a director at a preschool and early education center. “She used to play on that porch.”
The quiet bothers them, too.
“It’s not the same because we’re used to seeing the kids, and we don’t see the kids no more,” said Jackie McFadden, who lives on the south side of Gesner Street a few houses west of Walker.
She looked wistfully down the block toward the burned houses.
“See, the block is quiet,” she said. “Normally the kids would be on the porch. We just miss them.”
A Lack of Progress
Most of the badly damaged houses that aren’t yet repaired were rented and are owned by landlords who neighbors say are doing nothing fast to improve them.
Young, the woman who lives across the street from the burned houses, said it’s been several weeks since she saw anyone doing work on the houses that remain badly damaged. One has been cited by the city Department of Licenses and Inspections as being imminently unsafe, according to a warning dated May 9 posted on its exterior.
The warning reads that if the property owner fails to begin repairing or tear down the house within 30 days, the city could take action and tear it down.
But Young and other neighbors said that, aside from one house that’s been almost completely rehabbed and that contractors continued working on last week, they haven’t seen a soul touch any of the houses since the spring. That’s when, according to residents of the block, many of the property owners cleaned out the insides of the houses and some posted building permits.
“It’s been a good month now and there hasn’t been any work,” Young said, standing on her spacious front porch that her family barely uses anymore. “This is what we’re looking at now.”
Most on the block anticipate that there will be a vigil sometime this weekend for the children, but since people have lost touch with the families who were forced out by the fire, they were unsure when they’ll return.
Efforts by NBC10 to reach Eleanor Jacque and Patrick Sanyeah, the parents of baby Taj and little Patrick Jr., as well as to reach Dewen “Marie” Bowah, the twins’ mother, and other family members have been unsuccessful.
People on the block said they see some of those who lost their homes from time to time.
“They come back. Everybody that’s been burned out, they come back,” Watson said as he leaned against his car and sipped a can of soda on a recent afternoon. “They come around. You see them driving through. They miss it.”
The ones still there miss it, too. Gesner Street is a shell of its former self.
“It’s definitely a totally different area now.” Young said, frowning. “If I had the money, I’d be out.”