What to Know
- In the early hours of July 5, 2014, a fire ignited on Gesner Street, spreading in minutes to eight homes.
- Three children and an infant became trapped in one of the rowhouses and died. Fire officials never determined a cause.
- In the two years since the Gesner Street blaze, little has been done to repair many of the destroyed homes on the block.
Jeffrey Boone can still hear the children's cries.
Two years ago, in the wee hours after the Fourth of July, Boone stepped onto his front stoop in Southwest Philadelphia to take a break from playing video games. What he was met with outside on his narrow block of Gesner Street will haunt him forever: the glow of the rowhouses a few homes up from his burning, the flames spreading fast and furiously in the summer wind.
"It was incredibly fast. Like a flame-thrower," Boone, now 29, recalled this week in front of the home on the block he shares with his sister. "That went up in two to three minutes. Half the block was already gone."
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In the heart-pounding moments that followed, as the blaze swallowed up eight houses on the block's south side and melted the fronts of those to the north, Boone would try frantically to help. He dialed 9-1-1, ran to the fire station around the corner, at 65th and Woodland, and raced up and down the block, pounding on neighbors' doors as heat from the flames licked at his arms, leaving them red and raw for weeks afterward.
In one of the homes, infant Taj Jacque, his big brother, 4-year-old Patrick Sanyeah Jr., and twins Maria and Marialla Bowah, both 4, slept as the fire erupted. As other neighbors jumped from windows to escape, the four children became trapped in the rowhouse, the flames too high and too hot to allow anyone to reach them on the home's second floor, despite desperate attempts.
The children died on that hellish night two years ago. But even though time has moved on, for Boone, the fire might as well have been yesterday.
"At the end of the day, in the back of my mind, I still hear those kids," Boone said. Devastated and haunted by the apocalyptic scene that unfolded on his block that night, Boone left Philadelphia for New York days later. He stayed there until last January, when he finally moved back home.
But when he arrived, an unwelcome sight: Several of the homes still destroyed, their windows shielded shoddily by makeshift boards and their awnings singed black as coal. The soot is burned so deeply into the steps of the homes' porches that it's a permanent part of the block now, just as much as the memories that still dog its residents and the children's families. The smell of burned wood and smoke still lingers in the summer air near the houses still in ruins.
"I find myself constantly looking down the block," Boone said on Sunday. The house where he lives, closer to 66th Street, sustained extensive damage in the fire, but his sister, Kimberly Walker, who owns it, had it fixed. "When my sister was graduating [from graduate school], I came back. I didn't even want to get out of the car."
Boone wasn't on the block in the early afternoon hours on Monday when Patrick Sanyeah, little Taj and Patrick Jr.'s father, arrived on Gesner Street, flanked by a dozen relatives and friends, to light candles for the young lives lost. The babies' families come back each year to visit the site and pray.
"It's horrible. It's real horrible," Sanyeah, 30, said as he approached the porches of the burned homes with a plastic bag full of candles. Women and men followed him with bunches of colorful balloons that they tied onto the black wrought-iron railings of the houses.
"Two years ago, I was struggling, crying, and I'm still hurt," Sanyeah said. "That's why we're here today, to show some love."
Sanyeah, whose dark eyes do little to hide his pain, cried out as he reached the porch steps.
"Rest in peace, Taj. Rest in peace, Patrick," he said, naming his sons who died there before naming Maria and Marialla, the twins who also lost their lives.
Sanyeah stayed stone-faced as he methodically lit candle after candle in glass flutes, placing them on the steps of the porch of the home where his sons died. He joined hands with his relatives and friends and led a prayer, asking now for what the kids needed badly on that fateful night two years ago:
"Lord, watch over them," he prayed, "and watch over their parents ... give us strength."
Though the residents of Gesner Street desperately want to see the destroyed houses fixed, Sanyeah said it pains him to watch the block changing slowly as each year passes, moving him further from the last time he played with Patrick or held Taj in his arms.
"We still care, and we still want to know the answer: Who set this fire?" Sanyeah said. "It really hurts. No answers, no nothing, and they started rebuilding them now."
To this day, Sanyeah and most of the neighbors say they believe that the fire was sparked by a lit firework someone tossed onto a porch that ignited a couch. But fire officials in the weeks after the blaze said that it burned so hot and so quickly that their probe was inconclusive. They said they couldn't determine a certain cause and closed the investigation.
But on Gesner Street, it's still not over.
Grace Young, who's lived across the street from the houses that burned for 18 years now, is still on edge. She couldn't bear the sight of fire on the block even on Monday as Sanyeah and others placed memorial candles in front of the homes. Like Sanyeah, she and others who live on the block have no real answers.
"After [last July], they worked for two or three months" on the houses, Young said. "And I don't know what happened. They just stopped altogether."
Warnings from the city Department of Licenses and Inspections and building permits are plastered onto the flimsy boards covering the doors of some of the houses. But those were there last summer, too, and not much progress has been made. Carlton Williams, L&I's commissioner at the time, told NBC10 last summer that none of the houses were deemed an immediate danger, so the city didn't step in to take them down or have them repaired.
Just one more house has been renovated since last year, and some debris and trash still left from the fires last year is gone now. But five other houses still stand, blackened, gutted on the inside and hazardous, providing a needless reminder to anyone who passes by of the tragedy that devastated Gesner Street.
"Something should've been done by now," said Tyrone Watson, the block captain, who lives just around the corner on 65th Street. He said he hasn't heard much news in the way of repairs on the houses.
Boone and others planned to have a cookout on the block for the Fourth of July, but he said the heartbreak lingers, making it difficult to move on. The pain nags as the dark houses loom, a stretch of horror on an otherwise quiet and tight-knit city street.
"Every Fourth of July, I light my own little candle and say my piece," Boone said. "We try to deal with it, but it's hard. I try to cope, but I see the block how it was. I still see the twins coming out and dancing. It hurts."