Firemen’s deaths prompt bill to inventory Philly’s vacant buildings

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 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

In a little more than two months, two families will endure the second anniversary of their loved ones’ deaths.

On April 9, 2012, firefighters Lt. Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney collapsed and died inside a dilapidated and vacant Kensington warehouse.

“We have been here two years,” said City Councilman Dennis O’Brien, “and we still don’t have a comprehensive plan.”

“Every day that there’s not a comprehensive strategy,” he said, “the firefighters and the community at large are at risk.”

O’Brien introduced a bill on Thursday that he hopes will take steps to reduce firefighter and first responder accidents while working inside large and vacant buildings.

The idea is to identify, inspect, mark and seal buildings that present hazards to firefighters, first responders and the general public.

He called for city officials to amend the fire code to establish a task force to take inventory of vacant or abandoned buildings within the city and compile them into a searchable database.

O’Brien said the city contains about 35,000 vacant buildings.

“In every industrial city,” he said, “these present the most real and present danger.”

O’Brien said in every other jurisdiction, whenever there is a fire, the fire department instantly has an investigation. A report follows, and then a grand jury investigation follows if necessary.

“That doesn’t happen here, and it should happen here,” he said.

Joe Schulle, president of firefighters’ union Local 22, said since Neary and Sweeney died, the fire department has not addressed training initiatives regarding collapsed buildings.

“The reality of the Philadelphia Fire Department is that this incident could happen again tomorrow,” Schulle said.

Diane Neary, the widow of Lt. Neary, said when she revisits the site of the deadly fire, she can’t escape the image of the emptiness of the big, vacant city block.

“That vacant block represented to me the vacantness in my life, in my heart,” she said.

She said she prays the city will approve the bill.

“And will look at the vacant spot where my husband died, and Danny died, and know the vacantness that can happen in someone else’s life,” she added.

Toward the back, Marian Sweeney, Daniel’s mother, stood quietly and watched alongside her husband, Dave, wiping glassy eyes.

“If it’s about Danny,” Marian said, “I’m there.”

The plan

• Vacant Property Task Force — oversees the inventory
• Vacant Property Inventory — a block-by-block inventory of all the city’s vacant properties
• Vacant Property Database — a searchable collection of the properties
• Inspection Team — inspects the buildings and enforce violations.

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