By Walt Hunter
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Nearly 18 months after two Philadelphia firefighters died, crushed beneath the walls of a burning Kensington warehouse, CBS 3 has uncovered new details about the tragedy. They come in a preliminary report issued by NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and obtained by CBS 3 Investigative Reporter Walt Hunter.
In the days just after the vacant warehouse collapsed onto an adjoining furniture store, trapping and killing fire Lieutenant Robert Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney, as well as injuring two fellow firefighters, NIOSH investigators began searching for answers. Now some of those preliminary findings have been provided to Philadelphia fire officials to be examined, and revised if necessary, prior to the final report being released. CBS 3 has obtained a copy of the preliminary report.
The report documents, in the months leading up to the fire, multiple complaints to the City’s Licenses and Inspections Department about scores of squatters involved in drug dealing and prostitution inside the dilapidated structure. “A total of nine complaints were reported…at some point 65 people were reported living in the building prior to the fire.”
On a scale, ranging from Catastrophic down to negligible, NIOSH gave the building its second worst fire risk rating: “Critical-may cause severe personnel injury, possible death” in the event of a fire.
Yet, the report says, the building remained unsealed on that April morning, burning and collapsing with deadly results.
The report reveals parts of the building began collapsing within minutes of firefighters arriving, prompting commanders to establish a collapse zone around it. Yet, despite that collapse zone, the report states the four firefighters were not ordered out of the furniture store directly under one of its walls. “The collapse of Building No. 2’s North Perimeter Wall was not recognized as a prominent safety hazard….as the north wall stood precariously while operations were being conducted within the Furniture Store Showroom.”
Finally, inside that showroom, the report recounts the terrible moments as tons of bricks pour down on the victims, their fellow firefighters rushing fearlessly into the smoke and flames trying to save them.
“0555 hours – Emergency Button activation from L10-open radio “mic” with a firefighter shouting “get me out”.
City officials declined comment on the preliminary report, as did NIOSH.
The preliminary report does not contain a full set of recommendations. They will be included in the final NIOSH report providing answers about just what happened early that April morning, and suggestions on how to prevent anything like it from ever happening again.