Firefighters were dispatched early Saturday morning to a narrow street in North Philadelphia, where flames danced menacingly in the front windows of an old two-story rowhouse.
Lt. Matthew LeTourneau was among the members of Engine 45/Platoon A, located on 26th Street near York, who scrambled when the call came in at 8:51 a.m. Three minutes later, they arrived at the scene of the blaze: 2240 Colorado St., near 17th Street and Susquehanna Avenue.
The conditions were the kind that firefighters often dread. The region was still in the grips of a massive cold front that had pushed temperatures down to record lows; frigid weather always threatened to make their job all the more difficult. Older houses posed any number of unseen structural risks, and this one was already filled with black smoke.
LeTourneau, who was considered a “shining example” by his peers, ventured inside the property as he helped battle the blaze. The steps he took would prove to be his last.
An “interior structural collapse” left LeTourneau pinned in rubble and debris, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel later explained. It took firefighters and paramedics about 30 minutes to free LeTourneau, who was rushed to Temple University Hospital.
“At 11:07 this morning, he was declared dead,” Thiel said later in the afternoon, as he stood outside of the hospital, still dressed in his brown fire gear. “And we are without words.”
While trapped in the house, LeTourneau “was never alone,” Thiel said. “The rescue effort started almost immediately.”
He called LeTourneau, 42, one of the department’s “heroes.”
A grim-faced Mayor Kenney, whose father was a firefighter, said the city will “be there for [LeTourneau’s] family forever.”
Two other firefighters also suffered injuries and were expected to be released from the hospital. The fire also claimed the life of a man who lived inside the property on Colorado Street. Authorities had not yet released his name.
Residents said they didn’t know the man’s full name, but some called him Andre and believed he was in his 50s and lived alone.
Sherel Smith said she passed by the man, who lived next door to her, about 2 a.m. Saturday. He was clutching a box that contained a heater he had just bought, and he mentioned that he didn’t have any heat in his house amid the frigid cold.
“He said he was going to turn on his heater and stay in the house,” said Smith, 30.
Hours later on Saturday morning, Smith and her boyfriend, Monttwain Silas, 33, were awakened by the sounds of loud banging on their front door. Smith then realized there was black smoke in her house, and the house next door was engulfed in orange flames.
The next time she saw her neighbor, his body was being carried out of his house on a stretcher by first responders.
Smith and her boyfriend called him “Drew.” She credited a neighbor across the street, Melvin Carter, 53, for saving her and Silas by pounding on their door.
“Thank God he banged on our door for that long, because we would have died from smoke inhalation,” Smith said late Saturday afternoon. The fire ruined her house, so she and her boyfriend were moved into another rowhouse owned by her landlord on Colorado Street.
Carter, in a separate interview, said he was awakened by the sound of two explosions about 8:30 a.m. He ran outside and looked on in horror as flames poured from the first-floor front windows of the house across the street from him. He couldn’t get to the victim’s door because of the heavy flames, so he started to frantically try to alert his neighbors.
Merv Giddins, 44, whose mother lives in the other house that was next door to the victim’s, said she got out unscathed. Giddins said that when he arrived on the block at about 12:45 p.m., smoke was still rising from the burned-out shell.
Late Saturday afternoon, the victim’s brick rowhouse was a charred shell, with a hole in the roof and a collapsed ceiling. In total, more than 100 firefighters, medics, and support personnel responded to the scene.
Neighbors said it appeared the fire blew out all four front windows.
In what proved to be a bitter coincidence, this same stretch of Colorado Street played host to another tragedy a decade ago. Sgt. Patrick McDonald was shot to death in September 2008 while chasing a suspect named Daniel Giddings down the block. Giddings was later shot and killed after he wounded another police officer.
LeTourneau, of Springfield, Delaware County, was a 1993 graduate of Cardinal O’Hara High School, and had an associate’s degree from Delaware County Community College. He joined the Philadelphia Fire Department in 2007. The city said survivors include his mother and other relatives.
“I swore Matt in,” Lloyd Ayers, the former Philadelphia fire commissioner, said during a phone interview. “He was one of the good ones. You remember folks like that.”
LeTourneau’s fellow firefighters poured their heartache onto his Facebook page, where, just a day earlier, he had been talking about golfing with one of his friends. In one post after another, his friends expressed their shock and sadness amid old photos of LeTourneau in uniform.
“11 years tomorrow, I met you at the fire academy. You have been a shining example long before that, and I have treasured your friendship ever since,” wrote one friend, Sean Carmody. “You have forgotten more than I’ll know about firefighting, but you were a better person than a (damned good) firefighter.”
“This will be a hole in my heart that may never heal,” added Bud Henkels.
Mike Alt, another friend, posted a lengthy message that read in part: “There was not a job you would not do, nor a joke or story you weren’t right there to tell … It truly was an honor to know you.”
Ayers said the frigid temperatures and bitter winds that greeted LeTourneau and other first responders on Colorado Street represented “some of the worst firefighting conditions that you can have. When it gets below freezing like that, it’s just a struggle to get off the truck. There’s nothing easy about it.”
Thiel told reporters that it was too early to answer many questions surrounding LeTourneau’s death. The property where the fire broke out still needed to be made safe enough for investigators to enter. Authorities did not speculate on the cause of the blaze.
The commissioner said a comprehensive after-action review would be conducted by the city, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health might also conduct an independent investigation of the blaze.
Black bunting was draped across Engine 45’s headquarters in North Philadelphia on Saturday night. Some of LeTourneau’s colleagues stood in front of a pair of fire engines, and embraced each other in the darkness. In Springfield, dozens of firefighters from across Delaware County piled into more than 20 firetrucks and escorted LeTourneau’s body to O’Leary Funeral Home.
A massive American flag draped between the extended ladders of two Springfield fire trucks and billowed in the bitter wind near the funeral home’s entrance on Springfield Road. A lone firefighter stood in a bucket atop one of the ladders and steadied the flag.
LeTourneau previously worked at Engine 43 in Center City and Engine 57 in West Philadelphia.
“We rightly hold firefighters in high esteem because they do what most of us never could: Leave our families in the middle of the night, in the coldest of temperatures, to battle dangerous fires in order to save the homes, possessions, and lives of others,” City Council President Darrell Clarke said Saturday afternoon.
Kenney issued an emailed statement saying all City of Philadelphia flags will be flown at half-staff for 30 days. Funeral arrangements for LeTourneau are pending.
Staff writer Stephanie Farr and staff photographer Elizabeth Robertson contributed to this article.