Non-English speakers say city kept them in the dark at South Philly fire site

A three-alarm blaze that left two dead in South Philly tested Philadelphia's capacity to respond to emergencies in diverse communities.

Firefighters hose down the remains of two rowhouses

Firefighters hose down the remains of two rowhouses on the 1400 block of South 8th Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The three-alarm blaze that tore through several rowhouses in South Philadelphia last Thursday left some non-English speaking residents critical of how emergency services disseminate information in times of disaster.

Carlos Sanchez has lived on the 1400 block of South 8th St. for three years. The Spanish-speaking Honduran immigrant said he has never lived through something like the gas-fed explosion that led to the death of two people, destruction of several houses and evacuation of 60 neighbors.

“It was a very powerful explosion,” he said in Spanish. “My bed moved, the house shook and it was a very loud sound… my [second floor] window frames just fell to the floor.”

Sanchez had worked a late-night shift at a local restaurant and was still sleeping around 11:30 a.m. when he heard the boom that shattered his first-floor windows.

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After checking on a roomate, Sanchez threw on a sweater and ran across the street to one of the partially collapsed buildings where flames were spreading. Along with a few other neighbors, he went inside the fiery rowhouse to search for anyone who might have been trapped.

“We didn’t know if there was anyone else inside,” Sanchez, 25, said. “We went upstairs through the debris. We moved a plank or a piece of wood, that’s when we managed to see a person’s feet.”

The person was silent. Sanchez thinks they were already dead. “Our instinct was to save them or try to help them,” he said.

But within minutes, the fire spread and the group had to leave the building, he said.

What followed, according to Sanchez and another neighbor, was nothing short of chaos and days of being left in the dark.

Sanchez said the evacuation happened quickly as more than 100 firefighters flooded the scene.

“I came out with a thin sweater, wearing only shoes—I didn’t even have time to put on socks,” he said.

But as emergency responders ushered residents off the block, Sanchez and his roommate, who also doesn’t speak English, had no way to understand what was happening.

“There was no one who could explain the protocol or what we were supposed to follow, or what was supposed to happen,” Sanchez said. “I’ve never been in a scene like this one, but I don’t think we got the treatment we needed.”

Eventually, he encountered one emergency responder speaking Spanish. As firehoses sprayed the flames shooting off his neighbors’ homes, the woman told him that he probably wouldn’t be able to return to his home that night. She told him that the city would provide shelter if he went to South Philadelphia High School, where the city’s Office of Emergency Management had set up a waiting area for displaced residents to stay warm while American Red Cross coordinated overnight arrangements.

But by the time Sanchez met the Spanish-speaking emergency responder he was freezing from the hours waiting in the cold. Instead, he went to Center City to get a coat from his sister and spend the night with friends.

That decision would haunt him over the next few days. Because he never registered at South Philadelphia High, he never connected to the Red Cross or other emergency responders.

It’s not yet clear how many people feel the way Sanchez does. The fire broke out in a stretch of the city where many residents communicate in languages other than English. Fikke Kambong, the daughter of Rudi Kambong, one of the two people who died at the scene of the fire, spoke about her father through a translator, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Constantino Sanchez, no relation to Carlos Sanchez, also lives on the 1400 block of South 8th Street, near the intersection of Reed Street. He moved there two months ago and knows only a few people in the area.

He, like Carlos Sanchez, says he fell through the cracks of the city’s emergency response. Constantino was working in North Philadelphia while the blaze raged on. He never made it to the high school.

“I found out about the explosion because a friend called me to see if I was home,” he said. “I came home at night and I saw where [the fire was] and it was a little complicated to get inside my house.”

Constantino said people working the scene ultimately let him go inside his home to get clothes but offered no other information he could understand.

On Sunday afternoon, Constantino took a break before the start of his night shift to warm up with some coffee. Though water had returned late Saturday, his home remained without gas so he had no way to heat the house.

Though the fire has brought out the best in the neighborhood, with people pooling funds to help all those displaced, Constantino can’t help but feel like some of his neighbors were neglected.

“We feel bad because we don’t know when the heat is coming back and no one has bothered to come ask or wonder if we’re OK or not,” he said.

Deana Gamble, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, said people like Constantino Sanchez and Carlos Sanchez could have been missed out because they didn’t self-identify. The Office of Emergency Management’s Mass Care Plan calls for using the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to secure a certified language interpreter during an emergency and OEM followed that plan on South 8th Street, Gamble said.

She said the agency anticipated the language needs when they looked at the neighborhood’s census data so they brought in one Spanish-speaking member of Philadelphia Fire Department, likely the woman Carlos Sanchez spoke with.

The agency was also in contact with the Mexican and Indonesian consulates in case their services were needed.

“There were no indications that there was a gap in service and a need for language interpretation,” wrote Gamble in an email.

Gamble said both OEM and the American Red Cross helped affected families at South Philadelphia High on Thursday and stayed in touch with families throughout the weekend with social media updates, the city’s 311 system, and text messages, but the messages were only in English.

“Residents who had interpretive needs also had friends or family members with them who translated information,” Gamble said.

The spokeswoman said OEM additionally maintained a presence at 8th and Reed throughout the weekend to coordinate the response and look to fulfill any unmet needs.

Carlos Sanchez said he realizes he is fortunate because the fire didn’t hurt him and he still has a home. But information, like the fact that there were heated SEPTA buses available for affected families to stay warm in, didn’t reach him until 10 p.m. that Thursday.

He and neighbors like Constantino said they were also unclear about when they could return home. Carlos said he had to sneak through the caution tape on Friday. After returning home, they spent Friday and Saturday without water and gas, with no idea when they could expect utilities to return.

It’s unclear how PECO and the water department update customers on service status during emergencies. Philadelphia Gas Works said 10 homes that had their service interrupted during the fire had service restored by Sunday.

One reason why Carlos and Constantino remained without hot water until Monday could be because a technician needed to get inside their home to complete the service restoration.

Carlos is thankful service finally came back, but laments that it took so long. His roommates haven’t returned because they fear what else could go wrong.

“They don’t want to return home,” he said. “But we have nowhere else to go… It’s a trauma. It’s an ugly trauma.”

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