A COMBUSTIBLE mixture of anger and grief nearly boiled over on a Southwest Philadelphia street corner in the summer heat last night in a tense standoff between a long, blue line of cops and roughly 200 residents protesting what they claimed was a slow response to Saturday's fire that killed four children on Gesner Street.
The confrontation - first outside a fire station on 65th Street near Woodland Avenue and later on the narrow rowhouse street where eight homes were destroyed, and where the acrid stench of smoke still hung heavy - led to at least two arrests, as witnesses said some protesters tossed water bottles while the crowd chanted, "We want answers!"
At least 50 Philadelphia police officers flooded the neighborhood, brandishing batons at times, as the civic unrest on or near the main artery of Woodland Avenue teetered on the edge of chaos for several hours.
Witnesses said the tensions flared shortly after residents of the tight-knit, predominantly Liberian community emerged from a church meeting about the fire at 6:30 p.m. Some of them joined protesters already sitting in the street.
After the protesters had been sitting in front of the fire station for about a half-hour, a ladder truck tried to pull out of the garage. The protesters shouted, "Murder!" and "12th District murderers!" at the height of the mounting tensions.
The officers pulled out their batons, swinging them at the protesters as they surged forward. Two protesters were arrested and cited for disorderly conduct, according to Officer Christine O'Brien, a police spokeswoman.
"These people let our kids burn to ashes!" shouted Patrick Sanyeah, whose 4-year-old son - also named Patrick - died in Saturday's fire, as he strained against the wall of officers. Other family members of the dead and their neighbors yelled harsh words at cops, many of whom had come from the nearby 12th District station house.
Liberian Association of Pennsylvania president Dahn Dennis tried to calm the increasingly angry protesters, saying the chaotic demonstration was not the way to get the answers they want from the city.
"The route being taken now is not the right way," Dennis said. "This is not the representation of Liberians. We are decent people."
But Dennis' pleas fell largely on deaf ears. About 8:45 p.m., protesters from Gesner Street spilled back onto 65th, joining the rest of the crowd and again blocking the street in front of the firehouse. Dozens of police officers again moved into position, trying to push the crowd back onto the sidewalk.
Fire Battalion Chief Tony Hudgins, who oversees the swath of Southwest Philadelphia covered by the firehouse - known as Ladder 4/Engine 40/Medic 19 - was flanked by city Director of Public Safety Mike Resnick as he tried to reason with a contingent of protesters about 9 p.m., imploring them to disperse.
"For the protection of the community, we want these police officers back on the street doing what they do best," Resnick told a group of protesters who approached him and Hudgins voicing their concerns over the department's response time. "We want this fire station back open."
Later last night, Mayor Nutter held a news conference at City Hall in which he said some residents of the Elmwood section of Southwest Philadelphia, where the three-alarm fire occurred, were spreading "lies and innuendo" that mischaracterized the city's response.
The fire broke out at roughly 2:40 a.m. Saturday, in the midst of the July Fourth celebrations, and reportedly spread quickly through wooden front-porch overhangs.
Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said the first 9-1-1 call came in at 2:44 a.m., and then firefighters on a ladder truck dispatched themselves to the scene at 2:46. At 2:51, an engine arrived. Sawyer said the engine had been on a car-fire call before arriving on the scene but still made it there in fewer than five minutes.
The department has not released tapes of the 9-1-1 call but said it plans to.
It took roughly 100 firefighters about 90 minutes to put out the blaze, which displaced 42 residents and claimed the lives of young Patrick as well as twin sisters Maria and Marialla Bowah, 4, and 1-month-old Taj Jacque.
As the neighborhood - largely immigrant families from West Africa - continued to mourn, questions also began to echo across the narrow streets.
"We pay taxes, too," said Sanyeah, the grieving father. "[The city] doesn't care about us; they let four kids die."
Sawyer said that despite some lag time because the initial report had been for a rubbish fire, the first unit was on the scene within three minutes.
Earlier, many neighbors had gathered at nearby Christ International Baptist Church to discuss the fire - the meeting that broke up about 6:30 p.m.
Pastor Napoleon Divine, the spiritual leader of Christ International, later decried the protests as "unnecessary."
"If our purpose is to air redress, this is not the way to do it," Divine said.
"There is always a legitimate way to express yourself, even if you have grievances."
Steve Togba, a family friend of Sanyeah's, agreed, but still called for the protest. "This is a peaceful assembly," he said amid the chants of "We want answers!"
"The Fire Department is supposed to protect us, but that day they were nowhere to be found," he said. "We are venting out of anger and frustration until we calm down. Only then will we be able to discuss what happened."
At the height of the protest, a woman was taken to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for heat stroke. Her injuries were unrelated to the protest, police said.
As the crowd began to thin slightly about 9:15, Hudgins, the battalion chief, stood in front of the firehouse with other members of the department.
"I live in West Philadelphia," Hudgins said. "I'm vested here. I'm not an import. I'm vested."
At the news conference last night, Nutter said it was "devastating to every one of us that four children died in the fire" and promised that officials would investigate.
Sawyer, the fire commissioner, gave the following timeline of response:
* 2:44 a.m. First call to fire communications.
* 2:46 a.m. Dispatch for rubbish fire.
* 2:47 a.m. Second call, regarding four houses on fire. Same time Ladder 4 was calling fire communications saying someone was saying four houses were on fire.
* 2:49 a.m. Ladder 4 on location.
* 2:51 a.m. Engine 40 on location, after previously responding to a call about a car fire.
Sawyer added: "There's no way, no how, that these members would not respond" in a timely fashion. "They're sworn to save lives and save property."
Nutter, Sawyer and Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison all denounced reports that firefighters took too long to respond. They said the firefighters on the ladder truck that responded to the scene at 2:46 a.m. dispatched themselves before the response was even entered into the computer system.
"The primary reason that we are here this evening is to completely and absolutely refute any idea that there was some kind of a supposed significant delay," the mayor said. "That's just not the case."
He said some "individuals with their own agendas" were spreading inaccurate information.
"It's not helpful. It's not respectful, first and foremost, to the families to somehow try to convince them that something inappropriate happened to their family members," Nutter said. "It's disrespectful to the firefighters to somehow besmirch their reputations."
Sawyer and other members of the Fire Department had arrived on the block about 3 p.m. yesterday to help check and install smoke detectors with the American Red Cross. Some neighbors on porches were already starting to question the department's response time then.
That tension was carried into the meeting inside the church.