At least three people were arrested and a woman was hospitalized after angry residents gathered outside a Southwest Philly firehouse to protest what they believe was a delayed response to a multi-home fire that killed four young children.
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Around 200 people protested outside the Engine 40 & Ladder 4 firehouse on 6438 Woodland Avenue on Monday around 6:25 p.m. The protest spiraled out of control and nearly turned into a riot as the crowd turned hostile, with some members of the crowd even hurling water bottles at police at one point.
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Among the protesters on Monday was Patrick Sanyeah, the father of two of the victim.
"The mother watched the kid burn!" he screamed. "For three hours! You kidding me?! They let the kids upstairs die! They die! Come on man! They burned into ashes!"
During the protest, fire crews at Ladder 4 were unable to get out and respond to neighborhood calls as the crowd took over the entire block near 65th and Woodland. The crowd began to disperse around 9:30 p.m. though a group of protesters remained at the scene.
At least three of the protesters were taken into custody and charged with disorderly conduct. Police also say the aunt of one of the fire victims suffered a seizure and was transported to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently in stable condition.
Officials say no one else was seriously hurt during the protest.
The protesters, still reeling from Saturday’s tragedy, claim firefighters did not respond as fast as they could have because they didn't care enough about their community. During a press conference that was held later Monday evening as the protest died down, Mayor Michael Nutter addressed the angry citizens.
"This is a free country, people have a right to express themselves and protest," Nutter said. "But at some point in time we have to come together. We need to wrap our hands and arms around each other, stop pointing fingers and work together as a community. I will not tolerate under any set of circumstances, incorrect information, allegations, innuendo or lies suggesting that members of the Philadelphia Fire Department did anything less than perform admirably in their service on the 6500 block of Gesner Street."
It was around 2:45 a.m. Saturday when the fire began on a couch sitting on the porch of 6516 Gesner St., fire officials said. Flames quickly spread to seven other homes up and down the block through the porch roofs. Some residents were forced to jump from the second-floor of their homes, but four children were unable to escape.
Firefighters found the bodies of 4-year-old twin sisters Maria and Marialla Bowah, 4-year-old Patrick Sanyeah and his 1-month-old brother Taj Jacque in the basement of 6518 Gesner.
“They were really beautiful children and they did not deserve this,” said Keisha Burgess.
Burgess claims it took fire crews half an hour to arrive at the fire even though Engine 40 is only located about a block away. Burgess also claimed she reported the fire in person at the firehouse but nothing was done.
"I came around here," Burgess said. "They said when I came around here that I had to call first! When I called it took them 20 minutes to get here! Ten minutes to prepare! And then they just let all these houses burn up! These kids are dead and it's not right!"
Nutter directly disputed the allegations during the press conference.
"That is just not true," Nutter said. "Someone did come to the station. I understand it was a male. The officers immediately put themselves into service once they called fire communications. We insist that when the officers take the equipment out of the station, you have to tell someone where you're going."
Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer also revealed the timeline of the response and claimed that Ladder 4 was on location a few minutes after the first call was made reporting the fire
"Upon arrival, there were three to four houses already on fire," Sawyer said. "That's a challenging effort. Normally when we pull up there is one house on fire. They did their best to save those children, considering those conditions."
Earlier on Monday, Sawyer told NBC10 the first call came in around 2:45 a.m. as a rubbish fire. After it was upgraded to a house fire, Sawyer says the ladder truck of the Engine 40 firehouse arrived first, about a minute and 46 seconds after the call. The engine truck followed one minute later.
“The reason why the Engine Company didn’t respond was because they were already three blocks away fighting an automobile fire,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer says the Engine Company left the car fire once they knew that rowhomes were burning. Two other firehouses then responded shortly after.
While many residents claimed firefighters responded quickly, others agreed with Burgess, claiming it took longer than it should have. They also claimed that prior to Saturday's tragedy there was already tension between their community, made up largely of Liberian immigrants, and the police and fire department.
"Obviously the fire is the individual incident that set this off," said Christian Dunbar of the Liberian Association of Philadelphia. "But I think this is frustration from a community that feels underrepresnted."
During the meeting, Nutter, Sawyer and First Deputy Chief of Staff Everett Gillison insisted they've been working to form a good relationship with the neighborhood.
"We have a tremendous partnership with the community here," Gillison said. "The Liberian Association not only met with the mayor on Saturday but we've had this going back to literally 2008 when there was another tragedy in the same community."
Dr. Napoleon Divine, the Reverend of the Christ International Baptist Church which has collected donations for the victims, also insisted that the relationship was strong.
"I just want to assure the leadership of this city that the situation this evening is not representative of this community as a whole," he said. "We had a wonderful meeting this afternoon. We had officials at the police department and the fire department speak to our people, explaining what happened that night and the efforts throughout that period to help prevent the tragic outcome. We as a community accepted that report."
Nutter also claimed he would have a sitdown meeting with community leaders to share the "actual, factual information."
"The members of the Philadelphia Fire Department, and in particular, the members serving at Engine 40 and Ladder 4 responded in a very timely fashion to this fire," Nutter said. "Any information being put out by other individuals that indicates otherwise is absolutely, positively incorrect."
Nutter urged those who questioned the response time to pay attention to the facts.
"For some reason individuals with their own agendas may be providing incorrect information in the community and generating agitation for other folks in the neighborhood," Nutter said. "We need to respond forcefully with the details, with the data and with the information so that the citizens of this city maintain the levels of confidence that they should have."