A “highly respected” 27-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department died Saturday after the building he and colleagues were trying to save collapsed, trapping him in a pile of rubble, devastating the department and rocking a Fairhill neighborhood.
The collapse in which Lt. Sean Williamson, 51, came not long after the fire at the building that housed a pizza shop on the 300 block of Indiana Avenue was brought under control around 3 a.m., officials said. Two other firefighters were hospitalized in critical but stable condition. A total of four firefighters and one inspector from the Department of Licenses and Inspections were injured.
“This collapse happened very quickly, with almost no warning,” Fire Commissioner Adam K. Thiel said at a late-day briefing.
“I’m almost speechless,” said Thiel. Describing Harrison as a retired Marine who was “well respected throughout the department,” he said, “I’m not done crying.”
The store appeared to have been built without a permit in recent years, officials said.
Earlier in the day at a media briefing near the collapse site, an emotional Deputy Fire Commissioner told Craig Murphy, “It’s going to be a tough few weeks.”
The mayor’s office provided the following information:
Firefighters were called to the scene just before 2 a.m. Eight people were safely evacuated. The fire was declared under control after about an hour, but the building collapsed just after 3am while firefighters were still at the scene.
The rescued firefighters and the inspector were taken to Temple University Hospital, where firefighters Robert Brennan Jr. and Dennis Daly were listed in critical but stable condition. Inspector Thomas Rybakowski and firefighters Lt. Clarence Johnson and Lt. Sylvester Burton were treated in hospital and discharged.
Williamson, who was pronounced dead at the scene at 6:45 a.m., “was obviously the hardest to contain and the hardest to access,” Thiel said.
He said it was common for firefighters to remain on scene after a fire was declared under control, and that in this case firefighters and the L&I inspector “assessed the structural integrity of the building.” The reality, he said, in a city with aging structures: “Building collapses are something we’ve become accustomed to.”
Murphy said the collapse followed what appeared to be a “rather routine” fire at the crate. He said the five survivors escaped at different times, one of them jumping from the second floor of the building.
“You can’t predict that,” Murphy said. “It was just a catastrophic accident that really hurt our department.”
Circumstances were similar to those of the death of Lt. Matthew LeTourneau, who died on January 6, 2018 while fighting a fire in a row home on the 2200 block of North Colorado Street in North Philadelphia. The second floor collapsed and LeTourneau was trapped. When firefighters and paramedics got to him about 30 minutes later, he was dead.
Neighbors said Star Pizza & Seafood opened five months ago in the three-story corner lot at Third Street and West Indiana Avenue.
Half a block from the collapse, Wanda Rivera was awake just before 2 a.m. watching television when she heard sirens and trucks.
“At first it was just a lot of smoke, so we thought there was a fire,” Rivera said. “They put out the fire, then we saw the firefighters leave. Then they came hurrying back.”
Firefighters’ tone indicates most of the flames were out by 2:15 am. Over the next hour, engines tended to report reports of other blazes across the city, while a handful of firefighters with a building inspector stayed at the Indiana Street fire scene. At around 3:25 a.m. a commander boomed over the radio: “Emergency. Three storey collapse. members inside.”
Fire engines and paramedics rushed back to the scene, where they found the smoldering building had collapsed like a pancake. One by one, they identified survivors in the rubble and took them to area hospitals for treatment with reports of severe back pain, abdominal pain and leg pain, but the search for the fifth firefighter would drag on into the hours after sunrise.
As of 7 a.m., first responders were covering the blocks around Third Street and Indiana, where dozens of firefighters, police officers and paramedics stood in a nearly motionless crowd after hours of searching the debris. The smell of burning wood hung in the morning air.
At 7:19 a.m., the mass of firefighters slowly emerged from the rubble, dejected and wiping tears while embracing. Few words were spoken as the rescue effort seemed to come to a tragic end.
Patricia Sermarini rushed to the scene when she saw the alert on the Citizens app about the collapse and the trapped first responders.
She said her son-in-law, a firefighter, works the morning shift. As she pushed her way to the edge of the cordoned off scene on American Street, all she said was, “I just have to see him.”
She was relieved when she saw him coming from the collapse site. She said he was at the scene and helped with the rescue effort – but he was not injured in the collapse. He was covered in soot and dust, she said and immediately hugged him.
Moments later, Sermarini said she saw firefighters pull a body from the rubble.
“It’s so awful,” she said. “It’s so difficult for her. They just want to go home to their families.”
The building had a pizzeria on the first floor and apartments above. Ownership records show the property had been sold for $120,000 in September 2021, months before Star Pizza & Seafood opened its doors.
The owner of Star Pizza & Seafood – listed as Khalil Al-Ashraf in the ownership documents – could not be immediately reached for comment.
City records indicate that permits for construction and electrical work on the property have not been issued for years. However, photos from a recent property listing show a new switch panel on the exterior wall along Third Street, as well as a metal staircase leading to a second-story annex — none of which appear in Google Street View photos of the captured 2019 building.
Records further show that the property has no active rental permits despite the apartments on the top floor. The fire brigade did not say whether there were tenants living on the upper floors at the time of the fire.
City building inspectors also cited the property for numerous violations in May 2019, indicating problems with the kitchen hood, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and open junction boxes. These violations were again listed as pending in the city records in June 2021.
Since the 2019 inspection, the city has lost a third of its building inspectors, despite growing concerns about unsafe building conditions and poor building practices. Unlicensed rental units and unauthorized construction were endemic long before employee brain drain.
Neighbors said Chinese restaurant Lucky Garden operated in the building for about 12 years before the takeaway pizza and seafood restaurant.
Herman Soto, Wanda Rivera’s husband, said Star Pizza has a good reputation with the neighbors. “It was really good pizza,” Soto said. “Owners are nice people.”
Xavier “Sabi” Rivera said his parents owned the building where they operated a pool hall and arcade in the mid-1990s.
Rivera noted that a long-standing metal staircase on the side of the building that residents used to access the upper floor was removed during the renovations, but didn’t give a timeline.
Thiel said the firefighter will be back on site in the morning.
Mayor Jim Kenney said, “This is a heartbreaking day for our city.”