- Associated Press - Monday, April 9, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — Two firefighters who were battling a massive blaze at an abandoned warehouse Monday were killed when an adjacent furniture store they were inspecting collapsed, burying them in a pile of debris, authorities said.

It took about two hours to extract the bodies of Lt. Robert Neary, 60, and firefighter Daniel Sweeney, 25, because of all the debris, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said at a news conference. Two other firefighters were rescued and taken to a hospital for treatment of injuries not considered life-threatening.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of these two firefighters,” Mayor Michael Nutter said. “It just hurts a great, great deal.”

The blaze in the city’s Kensington section started at about 3:15 a.m. and quickly spread. Dozens of nearby homes were evacuated, and the firefighters were trying to make sure that the blaze was out at the furniture store when a wall and roof collapsed, Commissioner Ayers said.

“They were actually going back in to check and ensure that the fire was out,” the commissioner said, adding that crews got to them as quickly as they could but that the rescue effort was arduous. “It’s getting to them as fast as possible.”

Both firefighters were respected members of the department and had been commended for a long list of rescues over the years, Commissioner Ayers said.

Lt. Neary, a 37-year veteran of the department, served in the Army Reserves from 1972 to 1982 and worked as a city police officer before joining the fire department. He is survived by his wife and three grown children.

He was a mentor to young firefighters like Mr. Sweeney and had great instincts while fighting fires, said Timothy McShea, vice president of the local firefighters union.

“He was just a great guy, knew the job very well,” Mr. McShea said. “He’s like one of these old-school guys. They just have a second sense about them.”

Mr. Sweeney, who was single, is survived by his parents. His father is recently retired fire Capt. David Sweeney.

The warehouse where the fire started had been under investigation by the city for about two years, said Everett Gillison, Mr. Nutter’s chief of staff. He said the city would provide more information on the probe later. The cause of the blaze was not immediately determined.

As the early-morning fire spread from the warehouse, flames poured from the windows as crews doused water on it from all sides. Hot embers from the main fire blew to nearby structures, causing small fires that damaged six homes.

Fire trucks lined the nearby streets for hours after the blaze was brought under control. Bricks and debris were scattered on the roads as many of the warehouse’s outer walls had crumpled to the ground.

Twenty-nine minutes after the fire was brought under control, an alarm went out for the trapped firefighters.

Commissioner Ayers said the department last lost a firefighter in 2006. The last time it lost multiple firefighters on a single call was 2004. Mr. Nutter ordered flags in the city to be flown at half-staff for 30 days.

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