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Report on fire that killed 2 firefighters indicts city of Philadelphia

Firefighters battle a five-alarm fire in a warehouse on York Street near Kensington Ave. in the Kensington section of Philadelphia on Monday April 9, 2012.  (For the Daily News/ Joseph Kaczmarek, file)<br />
Firefighters battle a five-alarm fire in a warehouse on York Street near Kensington Ave. in the Kensington section of Philadelphia on Monday April 9, 2012. (For the Daily News/ Joseph Kaczmarek, file)

In April 2012, a five-alarm fire tore through the former Thomas W. Buck Hosiery Co. in East Kensington and took the lives of two firefighters, Lt. Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney, when a wall collapsed in an adjacent furniture store.

This month, a lengthy grand jury report on the York Street tragedy resulted in no criminal charges - not even against the property's arrogant, delinquent owners - but delivered a stinging indictment of several city agencies: Revenue, Law, and Fire, and foremost, that frequent target of incompetence, Licenses and Inspections.

To read this exceptionally well-written investigation, and everyone should, is to weep not only for the families of the two firemen but also for Philadelphia.

York Street represents "a failure of city government," the report states. The "tragedy stands as a symbol of the city's long practice of neglect."

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    District Attorney Seth Williams told me, "There are so many things that caused this calamity, so many different agencies that played a role."

    The New York City-based property owners, father and son Nahman and Michael Lichtenstein, the report notes, "violated virtually every regulation that got in their way." The problem was that the city enforcers rarely did.

    The Lichtensteins never brought the building up to code, while squatters and addicts had full rein of the property, making it an accident waiting to happen. The New York developers were cited seven times for code violations and failure to secure the property, five times in five months preceding the fire.

    Like the tiny European principality with the similar name, the Lichtensteins seemed above taxes. Prior to the fire, the report states, the pair "failed to pay the City of Philadelphia a dime in taxes or water and sewer rents," ultimately owing $400,000 in back taxes the city could surely use.

    L&I played the role of Inspector Clouseau, managing to botch every one of its functions - inspection, issuing violations, enforcement, and reviewing permits. The agency exhibited no teeth. City workers repeatedly failed to locate the owners' proper address of record, sending missives to the empty York Street property.

    Agencies seemed to operate with a 1950s mind-set and technology. In an era of GPS, the particularly antiquated Fire Department relied on tracking firefighters' locations at the scene of a conflagration with pins on a board.

    The report presents a guidebook on how not to deal with negligent property owners. Philadelphia is filthy with these speculators, who care little about the neighborhood, the city, even their properties. Of Philadelphia's roughly 100,000 tax-delinquent properties, as an Inquirer 2013 series noted, at least 57,500 are owned by investors, not occupants.

    Fourteen months after York Street, as we all sadly know, a building collapsed at 22d and Market, resulting in six preventable deaths. (On Tuesday, a city judge decided to hold a contractor and heavy equipment operator for trial.) Another grand jury has been impaneled - the city inspector is investigating, too - that is likely to mine similar L&I incompetence. The grand jury notes that 360 buildings have been identified as "imminently dangerous" by L&I at the request of the fire marshal. Try living next to one of those - that is, if residents are actually aware of the danger.

    The York Street report suggests many recommendations, including better safety training for firefighters, which will require additional funding. It asks for an independent audit of L&I. It requests a revised criminal code that would allow criminal prosecution of property owners who won't correct dangerous conditions, which requires approval from Harrisburg - so good luck with that.

    "I still hold out hope," Williams told me. "I hope City Council will take this cause and do the right thing, as well as the mayor or the next mayor, and that progressively it will get better." He is frustrated at his inability to bring charges, not only against the property owners but also against negligent city workers, "but I can't charge people criminally for being idiots."

    I remain less optimistic than the district attorney. In addition to money and cooperation, already in short supply, the grand jury recommendations require an embrace of progress, which has never been these agencies' strong suit.

    kheller@phillynews.com

    215-854-2586 @kheller

    Karen Heller Inquirer Staff Writer
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