O'Brien Calls for Task Force for Fatal Fire

Councilman Dennis O’Brien plans to introduce a bill Thursday calling for a vacant property task force that would inspect vacant buildings and create a database of information that would be made available to firefighters who often have to enter abandoned sites to fight fires.

The bill comes in response to the 2012 blaze in a vacant hosiery mill in Kensington that left two firefighters dead in a wall collapse. The enormous blaze burned for hours and left the 19th century complex of buildings in rubble.

Diane Neary, wife of Lt. Robert Neary, one of the firefighters killed that day, said Thursday that the block-sized empty lot left behind “represents to me the vacantness in my life, in my heart.”

She was joined at a news conference to discuss O’Brien’s bill by the Dave and Miriam Sweeney, parents of the second firefighter killed, Daniel Sweeney.

O’Brien and Joseph Schulle, president of Local 22 of the firefighters union, each criticized the Nutter administration and the fire department for not conducting an internal investigation into the fire and devising a plan to prevent a similar tragedy.

“Nothing has happened,” O’Brien said. “Every day you don’t have a comprehensive strategy in place, the public is at risk.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released a report in October with recommendations, including one that called for better management of vacant property. The District Attorney’s office also impaneled a grand jury to investigate the fire – O’Brien said he believes a report from the grand jury is imminent.

“I predict that will be a blistering report that also calls for immediate action,” he said.

Vacant buildings, particularly the former factories and mills that dot the abandoned industrial sections of the city, often attract the homeless, drug addicts and squatters. In recent years, a handful have caught fire – either through arson or accident – and burned in spectacular conflagrations.

O’Brien’s bill calls for the task force to start work with a pilot program in Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez’s Seventh District, which is rich with vacant industrial sites.

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