Two Fallen Philadelphia Firefighters Mourned

On a clear spring morning almost silent save for the sound of birdsong, the firefighters -- hundreds and hundreds of them on Rhawn Street in Fox Chase -- stood like a dark-blue wall of solace waiting for the casket of fallen Firefighter Daniel Sweeney.

Across the street, outside St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church, students from Bishop McDevitt High School decked out in blue uniforms of their own were also waiting.

Sweeney, 25, had attended their school and followed in the footsteps of his father, retired Fire Capt. David Sweeney. His mother, Marian, is a beloved science teacher at McDevitt, the students said. "We wanted to show our respect," Sophonny Huynh, 16, said.

"My dad's a firefighter, so I know what it's like," said Maura Gouah, 15, who was in Marian Sweeney's biology class last year. "She would always say how proud of them she was," Maura said.

Sweeney's parents, his three sisters -- Suzanne, Sarah, and Deborah -- and his girlfriend, Kristen Plotts, made their way past the hundreds who came to bid farewell to a fallen hero.

Sweeney and Fire Lt. Robert Neary, 59, died Monday in a building collapse during a five-alarm warehouse fire in Kensington.

Many mourners arrived early Saturday, willing to wait for hours as pipes and drum corps played Celtic music, and, of course, "Danny Boy."

Scott Novack, 27, was in that deep, long line of firefighters across from the church.

When Novack's shift ended at 6 a.m. Saturday, he and his brother, Jeff, 25, both Baltimore city firefighters, jumped into his silver Chevy and drove to Philadelphia.

Scott Novack, son of a volunteer firefighter in North Wales, almost lost his brother in the line of duty two years ago. "If something happens to one of us," Novack said, "no matter where you are, it affects all of us."

Hundreds of firefighters like Novack traveled to Philadelphia from across the United States and Canada to pay their respects.

Joining many from the neighborhood, they stood in silence as the distant bang of a drum could be heard and the church bell sounded.

The drumbeat grew louder as Engine 7 drew closer, carrying Sweeney's flag-draped coffin, which fellow company members would carry into the church where he had been an altar boy.

Ron Marcinkowski, a St. Cecilia parishioner and locksmith by trade, stood early outside the church "just to show my respect."

With him was his son Matthew, 7, a Cub Scout with Pack 290. As a boy, Marcinkowski said, Sweeney was a Boy Scout with Troop 290, both chartered by the church. He said Matthew now says he wants to be a firefighter "because it's cool the way they fight fires."

Not often mentioned Saturday but not out of mind was the question of whether anyone should be blamed for the deaths.

Sweeney and Neary of Ladder 10 died while responding to a fire early Monday at the old Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building, a vacant structure in Kensington. The building is owned by brothers Michael, Nahman, and Yechiel Lichtenstein, developers from New York City who had said they wanted to convert the building into apartments. The building remained idle, and, according to the city, the Lichtensteins owe more than $385,000 in taxes on it. The city had moved to have it sold at a sheriff's sale, but the process is slow.

Authorities are still investigating the fire and whether the owners are liable for failing to secure the mammoth structure at York and Jasper Streets.

The Lichtensteins have retained local defense lawyer Michael A. Schwartz.

Firefighters Union Local No. 22 president Bill Gault vowed a reckoning.

"Right now is a time to pray for our heroes and take care of their families," Gault said.

But he said the union wanted to push for tough penalties for owners of derelict properties, which he said were all over the city.

"How dare they own all this property, not take care of it, and leave them as deathtraps for my guys?" he said.

Monday was the darkest day for the city Fire Department since Aug. 20, 2004, when Firefighter Rey Rubio and Capt. John Taylor were killed in a blaze at a Port Richmond building.

Sweeney's family and friends, as well as firefighters, company brass, and city dignitaries including Mayor Nutter, packed the buff stone church as an overflow crowd of hundreds watched the service on a giant screen with speakers that filled the neighborhood with the sounds of the Mass of Christian Burial.

"We are a city in pain, as we have lost our friend, a firefighter," Nutter told mourners.

Speaking to Sweeney's father, David, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers recalled the day Daniel was sworn in as a firefighter. There were photos and lots of pride and a promise to take care of him. "We did, but only God can take care of him the best," Ayers said.

Marian Sweeney said her son's death had thrust a very private family into a public moment. She shared stories of her son, "a very funny guy" who had recently told her that he knew she had raised him right and that he planned to come back to the church.

She recalled when he got protective hockey gear in sixth grade.

"I always thought I could protect him the rest of his life," she said. "I never thought that anything bad would happen to my family."

After she was told of his death, she went see his body and was touched by the look on his face. "I'd like to think that Daniel saw the angel," she said. "You don't have to pray for Daniel. Daniel is with God . . . but please keep us in your prayers."

The Mass was celebrated by the Rev. Charles E. Bonner, pastor of St. Cecilia. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput attended and briefly addressed the mourners.

Bonner praised Sweeney and all firefighters for their service.

Following the example of Jesus Christ, "that's what all of these firefighters and EMTs and police officers do every day, not knowing if they are going to come home. They do that for us."

"You firefighters do so many big things so very, very well, and there are some little things you do exceptionally well," he added.

He recalled hearing about a little boy who loved to watch passing fire trucks because firefighters "make me happy. They always wave to me."

Bonner asked: "How many times did Dan wave to that little child? The child will never forget that."

He thanked Sweeney's parents "for the gift of Daniel" and his three sisters. "Thank you for the gift of your brother. We are most grateful."

Sweeney was taken to his final resting place Saturday at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Cheltenham amid the whine of bagpipes. The flag-draped casket was again perched atop Engine 7, from the firehouse he worked in for nearly six years.

Later on Saturday, Neary's wife, Diane, their three children, Dianne, Robert, and Christopher, and other relatives and colleagues gathered at the Givnish Funeral Home in the Northeast for a private viewing. They planned to have his remains cremated, fire officials said.

Hundreds of firefighters also attended a viewing and memorial service for Neary on Friday at the funeral home.

As the procession made its way to Sweeney's burial site, Vincent Giorgio, a 23-year-old mechanic walking his dog, snapped a quick photo with his cellphone.

Like the little boy in Bonner's sermon, "I used to stop every time a fire truck passed by when I was a kid," he said. "We owe these men our respect."

At the graveside, relatives walked past the casket, each dropping a single rose.

"Daniel," Bonner said, "may the angels lead you to paradise."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service