(UPDATE) D.A. Seth Williams: ‘Complete system failure’ caused Buck Hosiery fire, but no criminal charges

Diane Neary (left) and Marian Sweeney (right) support a bill that would reduce firefighter and first responder accidents while working inside large and vacant buildings. Neary's husband and Sweeney's son both died in a Kensington warehouse fire in April 2012. (Credit: Charles Mostoller)
Diane Neary (left) and Marian Sweeney (right) support a bill that would reduce firefighter and first responder accidents while working inside large and vacant buildings. Neary’s husband and Sweeney’s son both died in a Kensington warehouse fire in April 2012. A grand jury report on the incident will be released today. (Credit: Charles Mostoller)

D.A. Seth Williams announced today that a grand jury convened to investigate the April 2012 fire at the Buck Hosiery factory in East Kensington found a “complete system failure” on the part of city government and malfeasance by the property’s owners, but no grounds for criminal charges.

“There’s so many people that might’ve done something wrong, but there’s not enough evidence to hold any person criminally responsible,” Williams said. “We’re all frustrated. We wish there was something we could do to give the Neary family and the Sweeney family closure.”

The fact that fire investigators were unable to determine the immediate cause of the fire, or the exact physical origin of the fire, was crucial in undermining the required evidence for criminal charges related to this fire, D.A. Williams said.

That fact alone created sufficient reasonable doubt, Williams said, that would allow anyone charged with criminal negligence for this incident to claim that someone had set a fire intentionally, for example, or that other causes had started the fire.

The four-alarm fire on April 9, 2012, led to the deaths of Lt. Robert Neary and firefighter Dan Sweeney.

Property owners Nahman and Michael Lichtenstein, of Brooklyn, New York, were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, but invoked their Fifth Amendment right to not testify.

They currently still own the burnt remains of the former Buck Hosiery warehouse at 1817-41 York St. They also still owe about $100,000 in back taxes, and since buying the building have never paid any water, sewer, or property taxes on it, Williams said.

Adding to the lack of evidence was testimony by inspectors from the Department of Licenses & Inspections that the building was sealed. Neighbors on York Street testified that the building was inhabited by many squatters, Williams said, but the inspectors’ testimony would create reasonable doubt on that aspect well.

Williams also said that the Revenue and Law departments were also in part responsible for failing to act to prevent the fire.

Williams said that recommendations by the grand jury, who met twice a week every week since April 2012 and concluded their investigation on Friday, Jan. 31, include a call for a full independent review of L&I, the sharing of city data between various departments and agencies, and a revision of the Criminal Code to allow charges for property-owners who allow dangerous conditions on their property to exist.

Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said earlier today that he was aware of the report and said that the Fire Department will take into consideration the grand jury suggestions.

“(We’re) going to have to take a real close look at everything that’s being said and we’re going to of course support the grand jury, that’s what they’re there for, to look at things and analyze things, and we’re going to take a look at it and support it,” he said.

Ayers said grand jury suggestions, such as the implementation of training programs and inspections are “part of the improvement we’re looking to make.”

Joe Schulle, president of firefighters’ union Local 22, released a statement saying that the union would release a detailed response tomorrow after reviewing the report and consulting with Neary and Sweeney’s families.

“We are deeply ‎disappointed and angry that District Attorney Seth Williams has declined to pursue criminal charges against the owner of the derelict Kensington warehouse that claimed the lives of Bob Neary and Dan Sweeney,” Schulle said in his statement.

However, the end of the grand jury means a civil suit filed by Lt. Neary’s widow can move forward.

Attorney Thomas Sheridan, who is representing widow Diane Neary in a civil suit against the Lichtensteins, said that the lawsuit was on hold pending the results of the investigation. Now that it’s over, the suit will proceed into discovery.

“The handcuffs are off of us and we can move forward,” Sheridan said. “When all the facts come out, a Philadelphia jury will be outraged.”

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