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Philadelphia officials defend response to deadly row house fire

APTOPIX Fatal Row Hou_Cham640.jpg

July 5, 2014: Philadelphia firefighters work on burned row homes. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

Fire officials in Philadelphia have defended their response to a weekend row house fire that killed four children and left 10 families homeless.

The city's fire department says the first call regarding Saturday's blaze came in at 2:44 a.m. At 2:46 a.m., a verbal dispatch was made about a couch on fire. At 2:47 a.m., a second fire call reported that four houses were on fire and a crew was on the way. At 2:49 a.m., a ladder truck arrived on scene, and at 2:50 a.m. the local company's engine truck, which carries its hoses, was on scene after leaving an earlier car fire several blocks away.

“The national standard is five and a half minutes, they made it within the national standard coming from another fire,” said Philadelphia Fire Department Commissioner Derrick Sawyer.

Residents, though, complained Tuesday that many more crucial minutes elapsed before any water was flowing.

"By the time the hoses were connected, all of these homes were already engulfed in flames," said Grace Young, 44, who lives across the street from where the children died, and was awakened by heat and light from the blaze. She was among the first to call 911.

"Now you're asking our heroes to be superheroes. They're human beings too," Sawyer said Tuesday at a news conference.

The victims included families from Liberia and Sierra Leone. One Liberian family lost twin 4-year-old girls, while another lost a 4-year-old son and newborn staying in the same house as the twins.

"It's pathetic, it's pathetic, because it's happened before," said the Rev. Adolphus Capehart, referring to a nearby fire that killed seven people, including several members of the Liberian community, in 2008. "We understand that things happen, but to have all these houses in flames, and the fire department two seconds away?"

"This time around, we're not going to be silent," said Capehart, a fellow Liberian who urged the community to demand answers, but to do so peacefully. About 250 people took to the streets Monday over the fire; a few clashed with police, who were out en masse.

The fire occurred as the city's Fourth of July celebrations were winding down. Several residents said they heard firecrackers on the block that day, but officials have not yet determined the cause of the fire.

Solomon Johnson, 54, a former teacher from Sierra Leone, said the fire started in a foam-and-cloth couch on his front porch. He woke up in time to flee out the back with his brother, and said his brother went next door to help the twins' mother and her older children escape.

Johnson criticized the response time, and said he watched a lone firefighter spend several minutes struggling to open a nearby fire hydrant.

"When there's an emergency situation, one minute seems like an hour," said Sawyer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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