“While the building owners violated virtually every regulation that got in their way, they were never held accountable for doing so, and we do not believe that the available evidence can establish that their flagrant code violations and tax delinquencies caused the fire that eventually destroyed their property and the firemen’s lives. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned. Had city departments done their job, these deaths might never have occurred,” the jurors wrote in the report.
The grand jury report [pdf] is a damning walk through the actions of deadbeat owners, Nahman and Michael Lichtenstein, who left the property unsafe and taxes unpaid, and the failures of city departments along the way.
The Department of Revenue had opportunities to seize the property – which the Lichtensteins still own – for the roughly $60,000 in back taxes owed.
“We saw systemic failures at every level of L&I,” jurors wrote. L&I failed to ensure that the building was secure enough, despite inspections, and did not punish the owners for their violations. As neighbors complained that the building was becoming more dangerous with squatters and scrappers, violations remained and there was no enforcement brought through the courts.
During the monstrous four-alarm blaze the Fire Department didn’t hold a collapse zone that could have saved the lives of Lt. Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney.
The jurors offered a list of legislative and procedural improvements that could help prevent similar events. Among the recommendations:
- A state law enabling “criminal liability for property owners whose code violations cause death or serious injury.”
- Full audit of L&I by independent group
- Requiring building owners to be current on all taxes, on all of their city properties, before obtaining any licenses or permits
- Better fire safety officer training
- Technology to let the Fire Department monitor the location of firefighters on the scene during fires
- Maintain vital building information for large vacant buildings in a Fire Department database
“In connection with these recommendations, the Administration has already named a Special Independent Commission to review the Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I) practices, policies and procedures with recommendations expected in June 2014. And recently the Philadelphia Fire Department and L&I began regular meetings to identify and address dangerous building conditions, including the use of clean & seal where trespass is an issue,” said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison in a brief statement issued after the release of the grand jury report.