Blaze that killed two firefighters prompts plan for closer monitoring of vacant Philly buildings

     Philadelphia firefighters battle the blaze at York and Jasper streets in Kensington that killed two firefighters. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

    Philadelphia firefighters battle the blaze at York and Jasper streets in Kensington that killed two firefighters. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

    Nearly two years after a massive blaze at an empty warehouse in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood took the lives of two firefighters, a city lawmaker is looking to beef up oversight of vacant properties.

    Councilman Dennis O’Brien wants to create a new inventory of empty buildings and lots in the city, as well as a task force to ride herd over them. He’s also proposing to mandate regular inspections of vacant properties.

    “We are not here to finger-point. We are here to put a strategy together that is comprehensive in nature,” he said. “The absence of a comprehensive strategy presents a real, clear and present danger that something like this can occur again.”

    Lt. Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney died in April 2012 while battling the fire at the former Thomas W. Buck Hosiery factory, an empty, tax-delinquent building. 

    Family members of the fallen firefighters support O’Brien’s proposal, which he introduced at a Council session Thursday.

    “During the time that my husband passed, I rode around a lot with the fire department,” said Diane Neary, the widow of Lt. Robert Neary. “I talked to many firemen, and their fear was that, one day, they would go into one of these buildings and not come out alive.”

    The Nutter administration said the city already inventories and inspects vacant properties on a regular basis, though O’Brien’s proposal would mandate the monitoring through law instead of informal policy.

    Rebecca Swanson, a spokeswoman for the city’s Licenses & Inspections department, said it has inspected nearly 13,000 privately owned empty buildings since the launch of its vacant property plan in 2011. Of those, the L&I department has cited about 8,500 properties for violations.

    “We believe we are very much on top of vacant properties,” said Swanson.

    O’Brien said his legislation is not duplicative and will provide a big-picture strategy on vacant land. He also said he expects the grand jury report on the deadly 2012 fire to be “blistering” and released “imminently.”

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