PHILADELPHIA — Two firefighters were killed battling a massive blaze at an abandoned warehouse Monday after an adjacent furniture store they were inspecting collapsed, burying them in a pile of debris, authorities said.
It took about two hours to extract the bodies of Lt. 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 non-life-threatening injuries.
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of these two firefighters," Mayor Michael Nutter said. "It just hurts a great, great deal."
The blaze in the city's Kensington section started around 3:15 a.m. and quickly spread. Dozens of nearby homes had to be evacuated and the firefighters had been attempting 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 who also served in the Army reserves from 1972 to 1982, is survived by his wife, two grown sons and a grown daughter. Sweeney, who was single, is survived by his parents. His father is recently retired fire Capt. David Sweeney.
The warehouse where the fire started had been under investigation by the city for about two years, said Everett Gillison, Nutter's chief of staff. He said the city would provide more information on that investigation later Monday. The cause of the blaze was not immediately determined.
As the early-morning fire spread from the warehouse, flames poured from the windows as crews poured water on it from all sides. Hot embers from the main fire blew to nearby structures, causing small fires that damaged six homes.
Fire trucks 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.
Police began banging on the doors of nearby homes shortly after the fire was reported. No injuries were reported among the displaced.
The Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania set up a shelter and offered aid to about two dozen people who had been forced from their homes. By 10:30 a.m., most had left to see if their homes had been damaged.
Twenty-nine minutes after the fire was brought under control, an alarm went out for the trapped firefighters. Ayers said the department last lost a firefighter in 2006. The last time it lost multiple firefighters on a single call was 2004. Nutter ordered flags in the city to be flown at half-staff for 30 days.
"We're getting a lot of support, just as we give service to our citizens, they're serving us right now," Ayers said.