Pain is Raw for Philly Fire Victim's Father

Patrick Sanyeah led the protest against firefighters he said were too slow.


July 12--Slamming his chest with an open palm in anger and anguish, Patrick Sanyeah searched for reasons not to end his life as he grieved for his little boy in the July heat.

Sanyeah's namesake, Patrick, 4, died with three other children in a house fire last Saturday in the 6500 block of Gesner Street in Southwest Philadelphia.

"I think a lot about suicide," said Sanyeah, 30, a refugee of the Liberian civil war, as he sat keening, cursing, and hurting in the sweltering back room of an African video store on Woodland Avenue last week.

What stays Sanyeah's hand is a son named Wisdom, 2. "He needs me," Sanyeah said, adding, "I wouldn't live on Earth anymore, but I have Wisdom."

Sanyeah, toughened by a rough background that includes run-ins with the law, riled the city for a few days, leading a protest of Liberians who said firefighters were too slow to respond to the blaze in their neighborhood.

With his grief overwhelming, Sanyeah said, he called an end to the protest.

If anything can make the death of a child even worse, Sanyeah said, it's knowing that Patrick -- who didn't live in the Gesner house -- was only visiting on the night of the inferno.

Sanyeah and Patrick's mother, Elenor Jacque, 23, also from Liberia, are not married. They live in separate apartments in Darby, Sanyeah said. The couple had joint custody of Patrick, who lived alternately with each parent.

Jacque also lived with her 6-week-old son, Taj, from another father, Sanyeah said.

In the days before the fire, Jacque's apartment had a plumbing problem, and she no longer had water, Sanyeah said.

He'd given Jacque $600 to find a new apartment. She was in the process of looking, Sanyeah said, but on the Fourth of July, she needed a place to stay.

She'd gone with Patrick and Taj to the Gesner house of Dewen Bowah, 41, a family friend whom she called "grandmom," a sobriquet for a Liberian elder who provides love and counsel. Jacque had stayed in the house before, Sanyeah said.

Both boys died in the fire, which started about 2:30 a.m., July 5, when a couch on a neighbor's porch caught fire, officials said.

Bowah's 4-year-old twins, Maria and Marialla, also perished. Three of her other children survived, as did Bowah, who was in Crozer-Chester Hospital on Friday night, recovering from burns and smoke inhalation. She was improving, no longer dependent on a ventilator, said Dahn Dennis, president of the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania.

Jacque was not in the house when the fire started. It had been a tough night getting the kids to sleep, and she hadn't eaten dinner, Sanyeah said Jacque had told him.

Once Bowah and the children had fallen asleep, Jacque went out to a late-night chicken place nearby, Sanyeah said. He said Bowah's boyfriend, whose name he didn't know, was also in the house, and had tried to save Patrick, but burned his hands on a doorknob heated by the fire.

Official accounts do not mention the boyfriend's being in the house.

When Jacque returned, Sanyeah said, she saw the house ablaze, her children trapped.

"My kids are in there!" Jacque screamed at firefighters, who blocked her from entering the building, Sanyeah said.

Jacque, who is staying with her brother in a Darby house, declined to be interviewed.

The fire, which is still being investigated, has buckled Sanyeah, a tough and emotional man with a slender, muscled frame and expressive eyes that broadcast whatever he's feeling.

"I'm hurting right now, dog," Sanyeah said as sweet African pop music inappropriate to the moment played throughout the video store. "My son is burned to ashes, and I'm not going to get over it."

During the week, Sanyeah angered city officials by demanding an apology for what he and others described as a slow response to the fire. Officials countered by saying that firefighters had arrived quickly enough but that the fast-moving blaze couldn't be contained.

Young Liberian men accustomed to a tough immigrant life and what they perceive as constant police harassment seemed to use the fire as a means of venting frustration with all of official Philadelphia.

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