Meeka Johnson sat hunched over a notebook at the dining room table.
Even after I finished talking to her cousin about the family who had died in a boarding house fire, she barely lifted her head.
It was only when I walked over to her, to offer my condolences, that I realized what she had been doing.
There, on the paper, was a scratched-out word here, a reconsidered sentence there.
She wasn’t just writing one obituary, she was trying to write three.
Three accounts of three lives in three different stages.
Her 64-year-old stepfather, Horace McOuellem; her 25-year-old sister, Alita Johnson; and her 3-year-old nephew, Haashim, a little boy with a smile so infectious that even through her grief, her cousin couldn’t help but smile while remembering him.
Three lives cut short in the same horrific moment when flames gutted a North Philadelphia rowhouse on March 20, and then, in a painful postscript, the three were left behind. Firefighters, who couldn’t reach all the sections of the third floor, were apparently told by another tenant that everyone was out. They cleared the scene and left, leaving Johnson and her family. Unnoticed and unaccounted for.
After the fire, relatives said they repeatedly called officials to report that the trio were still missing. They thought something was wrong.
Johnson’s cousin Laleeha Cephas was certain of it.
The young women were family, but also best friends; where one was, the other was never far behind, even if just on the other end of the phone, company in the routines of life. A walk down the block, to the corner store, and on weekends to the after-hours club where Alita loved to dance.
“Me and her really understood each other,” said Cephas, 25. “When she was around, no one could tell us nothing.”
Now Johnson wasn’t picking up her phone or responding to texts.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” Cephas said.
Only after the smoke cleared, 72 hours after the fire, did the tragic reality become clear:
Even though it had been Johnson on the phone with 911, cowered in a small third-floor bathroom with her father and 3-year-old son and pleading for help, they had been missed. And now, as the fire department was struggling to explain what went wrong, the owner of the unlicensed boarding house, a former U.S. Homeland Security agent of all things, was being blamed for contributing to the tragedy.
But beyond that, there were even farther-reaching realities.
Of a city where poverty outweighs options, especially when it comes to safe, affordable housing. Where shortcuts pass for shelter and where absentee building owners and landlords know that desperate tenants are often forced to choose between substandard accommodations or the streets. As if there’s a choice.
When the fire broke out on the building’s second floor, investigators say six to 10 people were living inside. Two got out. One person died jumping from a window to escape the flames.
The three others — McOuellem, Johnson, and her son — were suffocated by smoke, their bodies discovered three days later in an upstairs bathroom where she had been on the phone with dispatchers for nearly 10 minutes while firefighters rushed to the North Philadelphia scene.
Before all three are laid to rest on Friday, there are still many questions – among the most immediate, how the family will pay for three funerals even after multiple fundraising efforts including a GoFundMe campaign. (https://www.gofundme.com/funeral-for-alita-haashim-horace)
And other questions, too, that will likely take longer to sort out. For the owner of the building, Tyrone Duren, and his company Granite Hill Properties, which bought up distressed buildings in poor neighborhoods across Philadelphia while he was living large in a $700,000 house outside San Diego and traveling to exotic locales including the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Cayman Islands.
For a city that was warned by Duren’s former business partner that something bad was going to happen and whose piecemeal enforcement didn’t do much to deter his company from renting out its properties to low-income tenants — often without a license and clearly without fear of consequences.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections believes Granite Hill failed to install the required smoke detectors that might have saved lives in the blaze. It’s now begun a full review of about 30 other buildings that Granite Hill owns in neighborhoods across North and Southwest Philadelphia. Too late for McOuellem, Johnson, and her boy.
The fire department needs to answer for what went so horribly wrong.
In Cephas’ living room, I told her I wanted to know more about the family. I wanted people to understand what was lost, beyond the already horrifying headlines of three people overlooked and left behind, including a boy who loved Spider-man and a mother who loved him as fiercely as she loved the large, close-knit folks who circled around her grandmother’s home in South Philly, and who often said her goal was to make sure her son never wanted for anything.
Johnson was small, Cephas said. Under 5 feet tall. But she was a force. For that, and for never holding her tongue, her cousin said, smiling at the memory, she nicknamed her “Savage.”
So it’s not all surprising that it was Johnson who was on the phone with the fire department, leading rescuers to the blaze even though she and her son and stepfather would never make it out themselves.
On her Facebook page, there were hints of that personality: big smiles, big take-no-prisoner proclamations of love and loyalty.
She had her share of friends on the social-media platform, but Johnson was a member of only one group: one for people looking to rent houses or apartments in Philadelphia, where people routinely post pleas for a place that’s good and affordable.