A 12-year-old autistic child who died in a West Philadelphia rowhouse fire Saturday night might still be alive if not for a recent city policy of temporarily shutting firehouses to save money, the head of the firefighters union and community members said Sunday.
"This is just a Russian roulette game, and now a kid is dead," said Bill Gault, president of Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
The city's top fire official, however, defended his department's response time and faulted a lack of functioning smoke detectors in the house and a possible delay in reporting the blaze.
"It had nothing to do with the brownouts," Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said Sunday, referring to the closure policy prompted by a $3.8 million budget gap.
The dead child, whom neighbors knew as Frank, was found on the second floor of 137 S. 55th St., fire officials said. His mother had escaped to the porch roof, they said.
The fire damaged at least five other rowhouses on the block and displaced 15 people. Two firefighters and the boy's mother were injured.
The fire was reported at 6:51 p.m. Saturday, fire officials said.
Engine 57, the closest fire company, had been on brownout that day and went back into service at 6 p.m., Ayers said.
But at time of the fire, the engine was en route to pick up apparatus at a department repair shop at Front Street and Hunting Park Avenue, he said.
Instead, Engine 68, based near 52d and Willows Streets farther away, was first on the scene. Ayers said it got there in three minutes, which he said was a good response time.
Gault and community members, however, said they did not believe the engine got there that quickly and said there appeared to have been a delay of some minutes in getting water on the fire.
"Our whole job is about response time," Gault said.
Ayers said that the engine had water on board and that people's perceptions during an emergency can be distorted.
Community members, however, said the outcome would have been different if Engine 57 had been in the area.
"Fifty-seven would have been here in a minute, easily," said Joe Carroll, 49, of Delaware, dealing with damage to his mother's house. The fire, he said, "wouldn't have caused as much damage, it wouldn't have spread this far, and that little boy might be alive today."
"That's a terrible way to save money. . . . We need our police and firemen," said Virginia DeShields, 67, whose porch roof three doors away was fire-damaged.
DeShields said a man who she thought lived with the boy and his mother told her that he tried to save him but that the child got away from him.
"He said, 'I had Frank, but he was fighting me. He was scared,' " DeShields said.
DeShields and her granddaughter Shinda DeShields, 24, of Upper Darby, said the boy and his mother moved in about a year ago. They kept to themselves and the boy could not speak, but Shinda DeShields said the child had started to play with some of the neighborhood children. He had a large collection of balls he loved to play with, as well as a doll of the Toy Story character Woody that he toted around with him, the women said.
"He used to drag Woody around all the time," the elder DeShields said. "He'd kiss Woody."