PHILADELPHIA - Two firefighters who were battling a massive blaze at an abandoned warehouse Monday were killed when an adjacent furniture store they were inspecting collapsed, burying them in a pile of debris, authorities said.
It took about two hours to remove the bodies of Lieutenant Robert Neary, 60, and firefighter Daniel Sweeney, 25, because of all the debris, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said at a news conference. Two other firefighters were rescued and taken to a hospital for treatment of injuries not believed to be life-threatening.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately determined.
City officials said the warehouse had been cited several times over safety issues, and the city was preparing to take the property owner to court before the fire. Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, said officials will talk to the district attorney about whether a criminal negligence prosecution is warranted.
The blaze in the city’s Kensington section started around 3:15 a.m. and quickly spread. Dozens of nearby homes were evacuated and the firefighters were trying to make sure that the blaze was out at the furniture store when a wall and roof collapsed, Ayers said.
“They were actually going back in to check and ensure that the fire was out,’’ the commissioner said, adding that crews got to them as quickly as they could but that the rescue effort was arduous. “It’s getting to them as fast as possible.’’
Both firefighters were respected members of the department and had been commended for a long list of rescues over the years, Ayers said.
Neary, a 37-year veteran of the department, served in the Army Reserve from 1972 to 1982 and worked as a city police officer before joining the Fire Department. He leaves his wife, two grown sons, and a grown daughter.
He was a mentor to young firefighters like Sweeney and had great instincts while fighting fires, said Timothy McShea, vice president of the firefighters union.
“He was just a great guy, knew the job very well,’’ McShea said. “He’s like one of these old-school guys. They just have a second sense about them.’’
Sweeney, who was single, leaves his parents. His father is a recently retired fire captain.
“He was a good young lad,’’ McShea said. “Danny was a young, aggressive firefighter.’’
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of these two firefighters,’’ Mayor Michael Nutter said. “It just hurts a great, great deal.’’ Nutter ordered flags in the city to be flown at half-staff for 30 days.
City Councilwoman Maria D. Quinones-Sanchez said the factory had been vacant for 20 to 25 years and was acquired three or four years ago by someone who hoped to turn it into apartments. But that project, she said, was stalled because of the collapse of the housing market.
Neighbors have been complaining about people stealing pipes and other things from the site, as well as people sleeping there, the councilwoman said. It appeared the site was not properly sealed off, she added.
As the early-morning fire spread from the warehouse, flames poured from the windows as crews doused the structure from all sides. Embers blew to nearby structures, causing small fires that damaged six homes.
Firetrucks lined the nearby streets for hours after the blaze was brought under control. Bricks and debris were scattered on the roads surrounding the fire scene, where much of the warehouse had collapsed. Many of its outer walls had crumpled to the ground by the time the fire was extinguished.
The department last lost a firefighter in 2006.