Fatality is first for a female firefighter in Philadelphia

Listen

For the first time in Philadelphia history, a female firefighter has died in the line of duty. Questions remain about the blaze that killed her.

A dark cloud hangs over the Philadelphia Fire Department after the death of Joyce Craig-Lewis. She was 36. Firefighters union head Joe Schulle says Lewis was a good person who won the respect of her colleagues.

“She was just a great firefighter, she did her job. She cared about being a firefighter and then, beyond that, she cared about everyone she worked with. She was just a friendly person who got along well with everybody.”

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer says Lewis specifically had requested a transfer to a busier unit and was sent to Engine 64.

He said the West Oak Lane blaze was one of the most dangerous types to fight because it was a basement fire.

“It’s like running down into a chimney,” he said. “If you are at the top of the chimney, all the heat and smoke rises to the top. When you run into a basement fire it’s the same effect. So it’s always going to be very challenging trying to get down…finding the seed of the fire and extinguish that fire.”

Schulle of the union says in a basement fire, crews have to find their way around by feel.

“Visibility is near or at zero. It’s not that you hold your hand a foot away from your face and not see it. You could [hold] your hand at your face and not see your hand.”

All firefighters wear devices that sound a loud alarm if they don’t move for 20 seconds. Officials are not saying whether Craig-Lewis’ alarm went off during the fire. Mayor Michael Nutter says the equipment will be tested as part of a thorough investigation.

“The testing takes as long as the testing takes,” he said.

Rev. Dirk Spalding is pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church on Rising Sun Avenue, located just a block from the brick firehouse that’s home to Engine 64.

He called the local firefighters helpful professionals who were always on hand for the community. He said the neighborhood was just beginning to digest the news, but that his congregation would surely be reaching out to show support for the firefighters.

“We will definitely bring it up to the congregation and try to make some appropriate response, and let them know that they are appreciated, and that we are praying for all of them.” 

Craig-Lewis, one of 47 female firefighters in the department, leaves behind a 16-month-old daughter and a 16-year-old son.

She is the fourth Philadelphia firefighter to die in the line of duty since 2012.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.