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Dave Sweeney helps to design his fallen son's mural

Dave Sweeney was a painter, "but I don't know if I was an artist," he said.

The Neary/Sweeney mural is painted on a second-story wall of an art gallery on East Arizona Street in East Kensington.  Credit: Charles Mostoller/METRO The Neary/Sweeney mural is painted on a second-story wall of an art gallery on East Arizona Street in East Kensington. Credit: Charles Mostoller/METRO

Dave Sweeney was a painter, "but I don't know if I was an artist," he said.

The retired Philadelphia Fire Department captain's painting of the 1991 Meridian Hotel fire, in which three firefighters died, hangs in fire houses across the city.

"I just painted it for the hell of it," Sweeney said Thursday. And then his boss saw it and remarked: "Oh, I want one of them."

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He painted three of them, which featured a distraught fireman staring up at the burning Center City building, "And then so many people wanted one, I actually ended up putting it in print and donated the money to the Hero Scholarship fund."

About 500 prints raised about $12,000.

"All of this over one painting of the Meridian where firemen were killed," Sweeney said Thursday. "And here, coincidentally, my young son is killed in a fire."

And when the Mural Arts Program said they wanted to paint a mural of his son, firefighter Daniel Sweeney, who died along with Lt. Robert Neary fighting a five-alarm fire in an abandoned warehouse in East Kensington on April 9, 2012, he was able to lend a hand.

"He was really invaluable with making sure I got all of the symbols right," said mural designer David McShane.

The mural, which was dedicated with a large ceremony Thursday, is painted a second-story wall of an art gallery on East Arizona Street. The wall faces the now-gutted former hosiery factory at Front and York Streets where the two men died.

The portraits of both men, pictured in windows and framed in gold pillars, are surrounded by symbols: a dalmatian, lions, their badges.

The building, which is owned by the other designer, Jesse Gardner, houses his Unsung Heroes Project, which advocates for first responders.

"I collaborated with Jesse who has been painting firemen and has the gallery," McShane said. "And he said that in his experience, firefighters are very attentive to detail so we got to get all of the details right."

Dave Sweeney is one of those guys.

"I did some work with them on the design," Sweeney said. "It was kind of my idea to put the badges on both sides of their portrait."

And both families helped to alter the portraits to fit the two men's likenesses a little more accurately.

"I went down there for about two hours one day and we worked on it and I gave my two cents," Sweeney said. "They were very nice to me and they got it."

McShane said it was important to get it right.

"We wanted to have them leave their mark," he said, "we think about firefighters make but their families make an equal sacrifice because they suffer the loss in the most dramatic way."

Dave Sweeney's first paintings included portraits of Daniel when he was younger and then graduated to painting firefighter training scenes and historical portraits for fire companies in the surrounding counties.

"I did so many, I burned myself out, honestly," he said.

Would he ever return?

"Right now, down the road, I can't say."

Follow Tommy Rowan on Twitter: @tommyrowan

 
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