Smoldering presumptions distract from truth about fire

Members of the Red Cross's Disaster Relief team after the Gesner Street fire, which no one seems to know who started.

SOMEONE IN Southwest Philly needs to start snitching.

Because someone knows how the Gesner Street fire started in the wee hours of July 5, destroying eight homes, taking the lives of four tots and injuring the mother who tried to save them.

Neighbors have said they heard fireworks going off just before the inferno erupted. Its heat melted siding off homes across the street. But none of the residents I spoke with would even speculate about who might have caused the fire.

"Whoever did it, it was an accident," said a neighbor. The fire appears to have started in a front-porch sofa. The neighbor would not let me use his name because he'd rather focus on healing than on "stirring the pot" of blame.

"Maybe it was a firecracker, or a cigarette. No one would [start the fire] on purpose. I don't think we need to know who did it."

Yes, better to blame the Philadelphia Fire Department, whose trucks were on the scene in minutes. Better to call the firefighters "murderers" for not saving children who - c'mon, people - would still be alive if that fire hadn't started in the first place. Better to demand an apology from the city for a fire it didn't start than to search for the person - or people - who, unwittingly or not, set the sofa ablaze.

I'm all for the community's demand for answers to questions about a tragedy, to ensure another one like it never happens again. But the most salient questions are for the community itself:

Who saw who doing what, before the fire started? When? What time?

If the community doesn't want to ask these questions - because, say, they imagine the guilty party already feels remorse enough - then they shouldn't ask questions of the Fire Department, either. Instead, they should write the whole thing off as an accident, resolve to support one another and move on.

If, indeed, it's possible to move on from the death of babies.

But that's not what's happening. Instead, unconscionable accusations are being hurled at the Fire Department - that it let Gesner Street burn - and Mayor Nutter - that he visited Gesner Street after the fire not out of sincere compassion but because he relished the photo op.

Enough, people. Enough.

And speaking of enough, it's time for critics of the Gesner Street protesters to put to rest their own despicable presumptions about the victims and the community they called home.

I've been fielding calls all week from readers who have demanded to know, "Where were the adults?" presuming that the children had been left on their own the night of the fire.

Because, you know, that's what all poor black people do.

The truth is, Dewen Bowah, 41, was with the children that night, caring for her five children and baby-sitting two others. She was able to save three of the kids and suffered injuries getting them out of the house.

But that wasn't a good enough answer for one caller, Michelle B., who defended her right to believe what she wanted to believe, even if the facts didn't support it.

"But she was just one adult, for all seven kids," she persisted. "Why didn't she have help? Where were the other adults? These people are animals."

Since when is it a crime to have seven kids under the care of a lone adult, I asked Michelle, one of whom is the parent of five of those kids? I told her how my own mom watched over her brood of nine all by her lonesome when my dad needed a breather; my dad did the same for her.

"So, was my mother an animal?" I asked my caller. "Was my dad? Were we white trash? I mean, what exactly are you saying?"


So, please, everyone, let's stick with what we know for sure, which is this:

In the early morning of July 5, a fire started on a wooden porch on Gesner Street. It engulfed seven more houses, including the one next door, where seven children slumbered. Four of those children died, and a brave mother was injured trying to save them. Two of the dead children were her own.

The Fire Department arrived within minutes. And the children perished anyway, because the fire was a rapacious beast aided by the wind-tunnel effect caused by the connected wooden porches.

What we don't know for sure is: How did the fire start? And who started it?

Presumably, the Fire Department's investigation will soon yield an answer to the first question. Maybe people on Gesner Street already know the answer to the second.

If so, it's time they shared it.



Phone: 215-854-2217

" @RonniePhilly