Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Female firefighter killed in West Oak Lane blaze

A Philadelphia firefighter was fatally injured battling a basement blaze in the city's West Oak Lane section early Tuesday, becoming the first female member of the Fire Department to die in the line of the duty.

City officials identified the fallen firefighter this afternoon as 36-year-old Joyce Craig-Lewis.

The Philadelphia native leaves behind a 16-year-old son and 16-month-old daughter, who are staying with family members, Mayor Michael Nutter said. The Fire Department said the fire at the home on the 1600 block of Middleton Street broke out at 2:49 a.m. The basement fire posed tactical challenges for fire crews, officials said. Craig-Lewis was unable to escape.

This afternoon, officials, firefighters and the community were mourning the death of Craig-Lewis, an 11-year fire department veteran, while trying to sort out exactly what happened to prevent her from getting out of the home.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of this firefighter who made the ultimate sacrifice," Nutter said. "This firefighter was doing her job to the best of her abilities but unfortunately died fighting this fire."

Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said no flames were showing when fire companies first arrived at the scene. Crews then discovered the blaze was in the basement.

"Basement fires are very challenging by nature because of their location," he said. Descending into the fire and smoke is like "running down into a chimney."

After Craig-Lewis and other members of the initial attack crew confronted heavy heat and smoke conditions, the incident commander decided to switch tactics, he said. Craig-Lewis became trapped "in the process of withdrawing from the basement," he said.

Officials said they were still trying to figure out what happened as the firefighter tried to escape and why she couldn't get out of the home.

"She was trying to extinguish that fire," Sawyer said, but precise details about what she was doing weren't known. All of the other firefighters who initially entered the basement were able to get out.

Investigators were examining Craig-Lewis' equipment, including a personal-safety alert system. A distressed firefighter can manually trigger the alarm, which also automatically goes off if the person remains motionless for more than 20 seconds, officials said.

Authorities said the investigation is continuing to determine what happened during those crucial moments. It wasn't immediately known whether Craig-Lewis pressed her alarm, or whether the device was functioning. Nutter said this afternoon that it remained "impossible to say" what happened until a full investigation is complete.

When firefighters realized one of their own as missing, they went back in to search for her.

"It becomes an all-hands service when we're rescuing one of our members," Sawyer said.

Craig-Lewis, who was assigned to Engine 64 in Crescentville, was pulled from the burning basement and taken to Albert Einstein Medical Center, where officials said she was later pronounced dead. She was on temporary assignment with Engine 73 in West Oak Lane when she responded to the fire.

The commissioner said the woman had a strong work ethic and "prided herself on working at busy fire companies." She started her career at Engine 9 in West Mount Airy, Sawyer said, but was later transferred to North Philadelphia's Engine 45, one of the busiest in the city, because "she wanted to learn her craft." She worked there for several years before joining engine 64 about two years ago, Sawyer said.

Craig-Lewis is the first female firefighter to die on duty in Philadelphia, he said. The fire department employs 150 women as firefighters and paramedics, according to Nutter.

At Craig-Lewis' firehouse, her colleagues hung black bunting over the fire engine door.

Joseph D. Schulle, president of Local 22 of the firefighters' union, said the department was "reeling" from the tragedy.

"The best compliment you can give a firefighter is that they are a very good firefighter. And that was certainly was her," he said. "She worked in some of the busiest areas of the city. She was well respected and well liked. She is going to be missed."

Sawyer said one of his goals upon assuming the department's top job in June was that "we would never lose a member on my watch," the commissioner said. "So I've already failed at one of my goals."

The blaze was placed under control at 3:32 a.m. The Fire Marshal's Office is continuing to investigate the cause of the fire.

The Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania said it was assisting two people displaced by the fire.

Neighbors said a woman in her 70s lives alone in the row house and that she is frail and uses a walker.

Fern Hall, 51, who lives across the street, took the woman into the house after seeing her barefoot and in her nightclothes on the street.

The woman was not talking, but Hall said the tragedy unfolded quickly.

Firefighters arrived quickly and appeared to have put out the fire when suddenly a group of firefighters emerged.

"I saw them running down the street with her," he said.

Officials said Craig-Lewis' actions helped the elderly resident survive the blaze.

"Her containing the fire to that basement allowed that civilian to get out," Sawyer said.

As news of the deadly blaze spread this morning, elected officials, public safety leaders and others were quick to express condolences to the fire department and the firefighter's family on social media.

"My heart goes out to the family of the Phila Firefighter that gave her life this morning protecting our city," District Attorney Seth Williams tweeted. "May her soul rest in peace."

Wilmington Fire Chief Anthony Goode wrote on Twitter that line-of-duty deaths hit departments hard: "Every Firefighter understands the risk yet that doesn't ease the pain!"

The last line-of-duty death for the Philadelphia Fire Department happened in April 2013, when Capt. Michael Goodwin was killed while battling a blaze at a fabric store in Queen Village.