Philadelphia firefighters struggled with cold weather, a dilapidated building, and excessive clutter while battling a 2018 rowhouse fire and collapse in North Philadelphia that killed a resident of the house and a fire lieutenant, according to reports released Thursday.
Resident Delgera Lane and Fire Lt. Matthew LeTourneau died in the fire and subsequent building collapse on North Colorado Street. Two firefighers were also injured. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Philadelphia Fire Department both released findings on the fire Thursday, 2½ years after the blaze.
In response to the after-action reports, the Fire Department will work to improve incident command and communication, knowledge of building construction, and tactics during extreme weather, Commissioner Adam K. Thiel said Thursday. Those efforts include new training courses and new command vehicles with special features that have already been put into use.
“This was a heartbreaking day for the city, for this department, and for all of Matt’s family, friends and colleagues,” Thiel said in a statement. “It’s difficult to relive the incident through these reports, but understanding how and why this happened will help prevent another tragedy.”
LeTourneau, a 42-year-old lieutenant and 11-year veteran of the department, was killed after the building collapsed and he was pinned down by joists from the second floor.
“Matt was absolutely, hands down, one of the best trained, experienced company officers that we had,” Thiel said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
The report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that firefighters responding that January day faced limited street access due to snow, parked cars, and the narrow roadWAY, as well as inoperable hydrants. Extreme cold weather also impacted the response, as did excessive clutter inside the house and its deteriorating structure.
The report recommended that the Fire Department increase response capabilities during extreme weather and make sure that firefighters are trained to understand the impacts of building age and construction.
The fire marshal was unable to determine a cause for the fire after an extensive investigation that included federal assistance, Thiel said.
The “excessive clutter” inside the home was described in the reports as a challenge for firefighters. Thiel said that situation was out of the Fire Department’s control, and he urged Philadelphia residents to always keep two means of exit clear in every room.
The poor condition of the 19th-century house, while uncommon for many other fire departments, is “the typical structure in which we attempt to save lives,” Thiel said.
Thiel said he had discussed the report with LeTourneau’s family earlier this week and will hold virtual town hall meetings with Fire Department members.
The LeTourneau family said in a statement released by the department that they were grateful the report provided more information “on that fateful day in January.”