A Philadelphia firefighter was killed Saturday in an early morning building collapse that devastated the fire department and rocked a neighborhood.
The victim has been identified as Lt. Sean Williamson, 51, a 27-year veteran, the mayor’s office announced Saturday afternoon, adding that four other firefighters and an L&I inspector were injured. Two of the firefighters were at Temple University Hospital, where they were in critical but stable condition.
The collapse of the Fairhill section of town followed a fire at a popular pizzeria which had evidently been built without a permit in recent years.
“It’s going to be tough for several weeks,” an emotional deputy fire marshal Craig Murphy said at a news conference just before 8 a.m. near the site of the collapse on the 300 block of West Indiana Avenue in North Philadelphia.
In a brief statement on Twitter, Mayor Jim Kenney called the building collapse a “tragic incident” and said he was in mourning with members of the fire department, where his father worked as a firefighter for 22 years old.
Six first responders — five firefighters and an inspector from the city’s Department of Licensing and Inspections — were initially trapped in the collapse at 3:24 a.m. The collapse occurred well after firefighters brought the blaze under control .
The five who escaped survived the collapse at different times. One jumped from the building’s second story, Murphy said. All were rushed to Temple University Hospital and are now in stable condition.
The fire marshal is launching a full investigation, Murphy said, but no foul play is suspected at this time.
“You can’t predict that,” Murphy said. “It was just a catastrophic accident that really hurt our department.”
The circumstances were similar to the death of Lt. Matthew LeTourneau, who died Jan. 6, 2018, while battling a fire in a townhouse on the 2200 block of North Colorado Street in North Philadelphia. The second floor collapsed and LeTourneau was trapped under the rubble. When firefighters and paramedics reached him about 30 minutes later, he was dead.
Neighbors said Star Pizza & Seafood opened five months ago at the three-story corner property at Third Street and West Indiana Avenue.
Half a block from the collapse, Wanda Rivera was awake watching television shortly before 2 a.m. when she heard sirens and trucks rushing towards the pizzeria.
“At first there was just a lot of smoke, so we thought there was a fire,” Rivera said. “They put out the fire and then we saw the firefighters leave. Then they rushed back.
Audio from the fire dispatch indicates most of the flames had been extinguished by 2:15 a.m. Over the next hour, engines tended to report more fires across the city while a handful firefighters remained at the scene of the Indiana Street fire with a building inspector. At around 3:25 a.m., a commander yelled over the radio: “Emergency. Three storey collapse. Members inside.
Firefighters and medics rushed to the scene, where they discovered the combustion had collapsed like a pancake. One by one they identified the survivors in the debris – taking them to area hospitals for treatment with reports of severe back pain, abdominal pain, leg pain – but the search for the fifth firefighter would continue in the hours after dawn.
First responders covered the blocks around Third and Indiana at 7 a.m., where dozens of firefighters, police and paramedics stood in a nearly motionless crowd after hours of sifting through rubble. The smell of burnt wood still lingered in the morning air.
At 7:19 a.m., the mass of firefighters slowly dispersed rubble, dejected and wiping tears from their eyes as they exchanged hugs. Many were speechless; few words were spoken as the rescue effort appeared to have come to a tragic conclusion.
Patricia Sermarini rushed to the scene when she saw the alert on the Citizens app about the collapse and the trapped first responders.
She said her son-in-law, a firefighter, was on the morning shift. As she made her way to the edge of the taped stage on American Street, she said all she could think was, “I just need to see it.”
Relief washed over her when she saw her son-in-law approaching the site of the collapse. She said he had been one of the firefighters on the scene to help with the rescue effort – but he had not been injured in the collapse of the building. He was stained with soot and dust, she said, and she immediately hugged him.
Moments later, Sermarini said he saw firefighters pull a body from the rubble.
“It’s so terrible,” she said. “It’s so hard for them. They just want to go home to their families.
The building would have had a pizzeria on the first floor and apartments above. Property records show the property was sold in September 2021 for $120,000, months before Star Pizza & Seafood opened.
The owner of Star Pizza & Seafood – listed as Khalil Al-Ashraf in property records – could not immediately be reached for comment.
City records indicate that no permits have been issued for construction and electrical work for the three-story property in years. Yet photos from a recent property listing show a new electrical panel on the exterior wall along Third Street, as well as a metal staircase leading to a second-floor addition – neither of which appears in Google Street View photos from the building taken in 2019.
Records further indicate that the property does not have active rental permits despite active apartments upstairs. Firefighters did not say if there were tenants on the upper floors at the time of the fire.
City building inspectors also cited the property for numerous violations in May 2019 reporting issues with kitchen hood, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and open junction boxes. Those violations were again listed as pending in city records in June 2021, though it’s unclear if investigators have visited the property since it changed hands seven months ago.
Since the 2019 inspection, the city has lost a third of its building inspectors, even as concerns about unsafe building conditions and shoddy building practices have grown. Unlicensed rental housing and unauthorized construction were rampant long before the exodus of staff. The Licensing and Inspection Department did not immediately respond to the investigator’s questions.
Neighbors said the Lucky Garden Chinese restaurant had operated in the building for about 12 years before the take-out pizza and seafood restaurant.
Herman Soto, Wanda Rivera’s husband, said Star Pizza has a good reputation among neighbors. “It was really good pizza,” Soto said. “The owners are nice people. »
Xavier “Sabi” Rivera said his parents owned the building where they ran a pool hall and arcade in the mid-1990s.
Rivera noted that a longstanding metal staircase on the side of the building that residents used to access the upper floor was removed during renovations, but he did not give a time frame.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
Writer Anthony R. Wood contributed to this article.