On April 9, 2012, Philadelphia Firefighters Daniel Sweeney and Lt. Robert Neary of Engine 7, Ladder 10 lost their lives while fighting an out of control blaze in a warehouse in Kensington. During the fire, a wall collapsed, killing the two men and injuring others.
Neary, who was 59, was a seasoned veteran with 38 years of experience fighting fires. Sweeney, 25, had joined the fire department a mere six years prior to follow in the footsteps of his father, a retired Philadelphia fire captain.
Both men left behind loving families, and are sorely missed by their brothers in the Philadelphia Fire Department. While both men were well aware of the potential risks of their work, the loss of two men with the moral character and courage to put their lives on the line for the good of others on a daily basis is a loss for the entire Philadelphia community.
The fire that the men were responding to started in the early hours of the morning, with calls coming in just after 3:00 a.m. After an hour and a half-long battle with the blaze, it was finally under control, but it was too late for two of Philadelphia’s most worthy sons.
One of the things that made these deaths so shocking to the community was the fact that they were the first on-the-job fatalities that the fire department had suffered since August of 2004; seven and a half years prior to the Kensington warehouse fire. The skill and experience of lifelong firefighters like Lt. Neary had served the fire department well in avoiding severe casualties.
The other thing that has riveted the community is the lack of accountability for the fire in the two years since the deaths of Neary and Sweeney. A grand jury spent two years deliberating the merits of a case against the owners of the property where the fire started. Unfortunately, as was reported in a February 2014 article in Metro, the grand jury found insufficient grounds to prosecute, partly because “fire investigators were unable to determine the immediate cause of the fire, or the exact physical origin of the fire” in their investigation.
All that could be determined was that the fire was of a human origin, and the grand jury cited a complete system failure on the part of the city, particularly on the part of the Department of Licenses & Inspections which was supposed to be enforcing regulations on the owners of the dilapidated warehouse property. Conflicting reports from the L&I and eye witnesses regarding whether or not the property had been sufficiently “sealed” against intrusion while it lay unoccupied contributed to the prosecution being unable to pursue a case against the property owners in the deaths of two Philadelphia fire fighters.
The property owners, Nahman and Michael Lichtenstein of Brooklyn, New York, have been accused of rampant malfeasance, including owing the city over $100,000 dollars in taxes on the property that caught fire, but without clear evidence that they had not followed the basic minimum standards for property maintenance, despite several condemnations by the L&I department, a criminal case against the owners could not be pursued.
Sadly, it seems as though justice for the unnecessary deaths of two firefighters will have to wait for now.
Honoring the Fallen
Wednesday, April 9 marked the second anniversary of the deaths of these brave men, and the fire department held a memorial service for the fallen heroes. During this memorial, which was held at the Richmond station, city officials, family members, firefighters, and even appreciative neighbors came by to pay their respects to the fallen firefighters.
During the ceremony, a plaque honoring both Neary and Sweeney was unveiled and dedicated in front of the mourning crowd.
Robert’s widow, Diane Neary, spoke at the dedication ceremony which was covered by CBS Philly. During her speech, Neary’s widow thanked the local firefighters for their support and that they shared in the loss of her husband, saying “I know that your hearts broke the day that Bob and Danny died.”
Dave Sweeney, Daniel’s father, also spoke of his sense of loss, and of the sense of camaraderie that he’s felt from his fellow firefighters since the tragic loss of his son.
While nothing can ever replace these two courageous men, the friends and families can keep their memories alive, and know that the city they died in the service of will continue to honor them thanks to the memorial plaque that has been dedicated to them.
The plaque is now on display at the Richmond section fire house for the public to view and honor the memories of these two dedicated public servants.
We here at In The News wish the families of the brave men and women who gave their very lives on the line in service to their communities well, and we wish those who continue to serve a safe and peaceful day. It is through the tireless efforts of these individuals that so many of the rest of us are able to enjoy the safety and security that we take for granted far too often.
So, the next time you see an off-duty firefighter, thank him or her for serving and supporting the community. Who knows? The next life that they save could be yours.