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Firefighters union calls for fire commissioner's job over fatal Kensington blaze (UPDATED)

The inferno at the vacant Thomas W. Buck Hosiery Complex claimed the lives of firefighters Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney in April.

Firefighters Local Union 22 called for the resignations of Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers and two deputies Tuesday afternoon for their leadership shortcomings in the five-alarm blaze at Kensington's vacant Thomas W. Buck Hosiery Complex in April that killed Firefighter Lt. Robert Neary, 60, and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney, 25.

"We believe Commissioner Lloyd Ayers and Deputy Commissioners Ernest Hargett and John Devlin are all guilty of incompetence and indifference," Union President Bill Gault said.

But representatives of Mayor Michael Nutter's administration said they had "the utmost faith" in the department's leadership and no changes will occur. "Local 22, for whatever reason, feels it is in their best interest to come out with scandalous and scurrilous lies and information," Director of Public Safety Mike Resnick said, citing pending investigations by a grand jury and the National Institute for Occupational Safety as limitations on further comment.

Neary and Sweeney died when a wall collapsed at an adjacent furniture store. "The fire was under control and they were ordered to go into that building to check for an extension of the fire," Sergeant-at-Arms Jack Eltman said. He said union members have been speaking to firefighters who were on the scene and reviewing photos. "One of the chiefs stated that you can blame every white hat that was in the fire department – and he was on the ground."

"It makes no sense – you lose a building a block square and here you've got a section that's not even salvageable," he said. "Let the damn thing burn."

"The most egregious mistake was never establishing or maintaining a collapse zone," union secretary Mike Bresnan said, pointing to pictures released Tuesday showing a firefighter surrounded by crumbling properties and a supervisor on the building's top. "The furniture store is the one story section where our brothers died and you have a member on the roof," he said.

Bresnan said that those in charge should have conducted a risk-benefit analysis and instead limited the fire's spread to a controlled burn because there were no people inside. "This is a case where it's a furniture store," he said. "Who are we concerned about, the furniture?"

"That was a wind-driven fire," Eltman said. "You get into a situation that it's almost a fire you can't beat. All you can do is stop it from spreading to surrounding properties."

The union leaders also said that Ayers did not respond until after the fatal collapse and that second-in-command Hargett was on the scene but never assumed command from Devlin because he was untrained to do so.

They claimed this lack of training is epidemic in the fire department because of budget cutbacks, which they also cited as reason for the fact that the fire was limited to five alarms. They said it should have reached seven or eight alarms, but, due to brownouts and closed stations, there is a lack of resources to fight such fires.

"We're down 300 members," Vice President Tim McShea said. "The reason it doesn't go above more than five alarms is because they have to call in more members and they don't want to do that, even if they lose a few."

Resnick maintained that Ayers was on the scene and that officials did establish a collapse zone.

"We have no answers, we have more questions," Eltman said. "But we know there was negligence on that job."

Heated history

The fire began around 3 a.m. April 9 and burned for about two hours. High winds carried embers to surrounding properties, prompting the evacuation of 31 homes. Neary and Sweeney were killed and two other firefighters when an interior wall of the furniture store collapsed, bringing the roof down with it and burying the men in rubble.

Until now, most of the criticism surrounding the incident has been directed at the city and the property owners, Yeichiel and Michael Lichtenstein of Brooklyn-based YML Realty Holdings. The union said that Mayor Michael Nutter's administration, the Lichtensteins and fire department leadership are all equally culpable.

Neighborhood activists like Christopher Sawyer said at the time they had been bombarding the city's 311 hotline with calls since November complaining about the property purchased in 2009 with the intent to convert it into apartment units.

The Nutter administration shot back that the 311 complaints were not ignored, claiming an investigator was sent out six days after they were made and pointing to three L&I citations sent to the Lichtensteins beginning in November detailing safety hazards on the property.

The owners allegedly did not respond to any of the citations within the required 30-day waiting period and a judgment was issued in March to send the building to sheriff's sale, which Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison estimated would have taken place in June or July.

The District Attorney's Office impaneled a grand jury about a week after the fire to look into possible criminal charges against the Lichtensteins. Those findings have not yet been released and fire union officials said that they could take a year to return.