Philadelphia police arrested several people Monday evening outside a firehouse during a protest over what angry residents believe was a slow response to a weekend blaze that killed four young children.
Police were called to protect the station in the city's southwest section, and officers dragged away demonstrators who tried to block firefighters from answering a call, according to news reports.
WPVI-TV reported that "riots" broke out after about 100 people swarmed the firehouse — Ladder 4 Engine 40 — after a community meeting. Some protesters clashed with police, and others threw water bottles.
Residents want to know what crews from a ladder-and-engine company around the corner were delayed in responding to the fast-moving blaze that engulfed about a dozen row house just before 3 a.m. Saturday.
The blaze killed three 4-year-olds — twins Marie and Mariallah Bowah and Patrick Sanyeah — and 6-week-old Taj Jacque.
Protesters claimed it took fire crews 30 minutes to show up. Dispatch records obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer show the first firefighters — from a station a block away — arrived within five minutes.
The fire department call center treated the initial 911 call — at 2:45 a.m. about a couch burning on a front porch — as a rubbish fire, a low-level incident. After more calls about several houses being ablaze, dispatchers upgraded the fire and called for more help.
Fire officials are investigating why the initial call was treated as a rubbish fire.
At the time of the initial call, the engine at the local firehouse was 2 miles away extinguishing a car fire. The ladder truck was in the firehouse, but ladders are not assigned to trash fires, so the crew was not alerted immediately.
After the fire was upgraded, Ladder 40 was the first to arrive at the fire on Gesner Street, and Engine 4 arrived a minute later.
Sawyer told the Inquirer that GPS data from the trucks show the first fire crews arrived a minute earlier than indicated on the dispatch records, which are less accurate than satellite tracking.
Monday, Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer dismissed the rumors that it took firefighters a half-hour to arrive.
"It doesn't take 30 minutes to respond to anything," he said.
Sawyer and Mayor Michael Nutter later defended the department's response, with Nutter saying firefighters "provided exemplary services."