'Our block just went from fully populated to abandoned'

Teenamarie Shaw, who fled the fire and lost her home, weeps as she gets a hug Saturday, July 5, 2104. Her husband Maurice Anderson is on right. She said "this is my castle...I want my house back".

As soon as Teenamarie Shaw's husband jostled her awake, she could smell the smoke.

By the time they scrambled downstairs in their two-story rowhouse, the front porch was ablaze and smoke was pouring across the ceiling into the house.

"It was so fast," Shaw said Saturday morning, sitting on the steps outside John Bartram High School, drawing on a cigarette. "It was the craziest thing I've ever seen, how fast fire burns."

The calamitous blaze early Saturday, in the 6500 block of Gesner Street, killed four children and consumed eight homes, forever scarring this corner of Southwest Philadelphia.

"Our block just went from fully populated to abandoned," said Leon Boone, whose brother-in-law was credited with alerting many of the neighbors to the fire. "It's never going to be the same again."

Like many blocks in this working-class area, Gesner Street - one block long, tucked between Woodland and Paschall Avenues - is full of first- and second-generation West African immigrants.

The four children who died - Patrick Sanyeah, twins Maria and Marialla Bowah, all 4, and 6-week-old Taj Jacque - came from families of Liberian immigrants.

Virginia Townes, who lives across the narrow street, woke up to her sister's screaming. She looked out the window and felt the massive heat, which melted the taillights of nearby parked cars.

"I heard nothing but terrifying screams from the kids," she said. "This is just heartbreaking."

Damylish Colon lives on the block and was coming home from the pizza shop when she saw the flames and ran to her house "shaking" with fear.

"There's no God out here no more," she said. "Because if there was, those kids wouldn't get burned like that, like they're in hell."

Patrice Robinson also heard the children screaming after hustling out of her house along with her pregnant daughter and asthmatic 9-year-old son.

"That stays with you," she said.

Robinson was among those gathered Saturday at Bartram, where the American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania was tending to the more than 40 people forced from their homes, some of which were blackened ruins, others damaged by smoke and water.

Robinson was still in awe at how the fire behaved as it spread, "curling like when you burn newspaper."

Shaw said she and her family members, including four children, had to escape out the back of their house, with "fireballs raining down."

The back gate was jammed with leaves and the alley was choked with debris.

"Everything was in disarray," she said. "I was climbing over boards, old mattresses, dirt."

By late morning, as firefighters continued picking through the rubble, neighbors milled about the block.

Anton Moore, a community activist, called together groups of people until about 40 had joined hands and formed a prayer circle in the street.

"I challenge each and every member out here . . . in this community, please let's come together with one another for these families," Moore said, his head bowed. "Words can't express how we're feeling right now, but we do know that tomorrow is going to be better than today."