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After Deadly Philadelphia Fire, Warehouses Blamed


In Philadelphia, a warehouse fire this past week killed two firefighters and left neighbors angry because the building was abandoned. The city faces the same challenges as many others across the country - it has too many big old and unused buildings. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Fiedler reports on the threat posed by vacant buildings.

ELIZABETH FIEDLER, BYLINE: John Mahoney walks his dog near the site of the fire. He wasn't surprised by what happened.

JOHN MAHONEY: It's the second fire in two years - almost two years now. Every time we turn around, there's a fire truck going down Kensington Ave.

FIEDLER: Around the corner, surveying the scorched wreckage, community leader Jeff Carpineta gets angry.

JEFF CARPINETA: The buildings are going to burn. It's not like, well, maybe they'll burn, or, you know, we'll probably get lucky on that one. They're all burning one by one. And anybody that Googles Philadelphia Kensington factory fire or Philadelphia warehouse fire will see there's a very clear history where all the buildings that are not currently occupied are burning.

FIEDLER: Carpineta, the president of the area's East Kensington Neighbors Association, is surrounded by firefighters and by onlookers curious to catch a glimpse of the bricks that remain. He says the fire didn't just take lives and damage property, it set back the community's growth.

CARPINETA: It's where all of the massive old textile mills were, which have mostly burned down now. There's so much vacant land, it's like even too much for the real estate market to really deal with.

FIEDLER: Mayor Michael Nutter says Philadelphia is reviewing records on the owner of the warehouse.

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: We are a country of laws. There are process and procedures that we have to follow.

CARPINETA: The city agencies are talking about process - and we mailed notices to the owners, and we were preparing to take them to court, and administration and administration proceeding and paperwork.

FIEDLER: Jeff Carpineta is sick of paperwork and wonders how the families of the firefighters feel about all the notices. Before the housing market tanked, the warehouse that burned was supposed to be converted into apartments. Since then, the city had been warning the owners to seal doors and windows and was working on legal action.

Philadelphia officials say they're working to see if there are other dangerous vacant properties. Sandy Salzman, the executive director of a neighborhood community development group, is a longtime area resident. She points to a big empty space just down the block from the fire.

SANDY SALZMAN: All of these lots over here is where fires were in the past 10 years, and one was just a year and a half ago, you know, that went down. And they all went down due to fire. So, you know, we have a reason to worry about buildings, you know, going up in flames.

FIEDLER: Robin Nicoson is the safety chief with the Indianapolis Fire Department. He says firefighters face similar problems in Indiana. And because of the recession, there are now even more abandoned buildings posing fire hazards.

ROBIN NICOSON: This is a national problem, these structures. And when we look at that, we've got to look at the risk and benefit, and that's what each, I think, city and town, including Philadelphia and other places, have already got in place to look and put power in far as enforcing the codes, enforcing getting some of these structures demolished beforehand.

FIEDLER: Philadelphia's district attorney says he's awaiting investigation results before deciding whether to press criminal charges. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Fiedler