Building owner charged with arson in Fairhill collapse that killed firefighter

Fairhill collapse
A building on the 300 block of W. Indiana Avenue collapsed early Saturday morning shortly after a fire.
Elizabeth Robertson/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

Federal authorities have charged the owner of a Fairhill building with setting a fire that later led the structure to collapse, killing Lt. Sean Williamson and severely wounding two other firefighters.

Al-Ashraf Basem Khalil, 28, of Oxford Circle, was arrested last Friday at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City after allegedly attempting to flee to Amman, Jordan, federal authorities said Tuesday.

Khalil and another man were caught on camera June 18 entering the basement of the property — a pizza shop at 300 W. Indiana Ave. with apartments on the second and third levels — minutes before smoke began emanating from the building, prosecutors said.

This photo provided by the Philadelphia Fire Dept., emergency personnel respond to the scene of a building that caught fire then collapsed early Saturday, June 18, 2022 in Philadelphia.Philadelphia Fire Dept. via AP

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson S.T. Thayer declined to comment on the other suspect, citing an ongoing investigation.

Officials credited international authorities, including INTERPOL, U.S. Homeland Security in Dubai and law enforcement in Jordan, for cooperating with the operation to apprehend Khalil.

Khalil allegedly lied to investigators June 20 about his whereabouts at the time of the fire, and he told them he had no plans to leave the country. After a second interview on June 21, he booked a one-way flight the next day to Amman, Jordan, with a stopover in Dubai.

At the airport in Amman, he was denied entry, and he was likewise turned away in Dubai before eventually being sent back to New York, officials said. Khalil has Palestinian and American passports, according to Thayer.

Based on the charges, Khalil could face the death penalty; although Thayer said the decision on whether to pursue capital punishment will be made later in the legal process.

An attorney for Khalil could not be immediately identified Tuesday evening.

Philadelphia firefighter
Firefighters unload Lt. Sean Williamson’s casket Monday, June 27, in front of Epiphany of Our Lord Church in South Philadelphia.Jack Tomczuk

Firefighters responded to the June 18 blaze just before 2 a.m., and the fire was suppressed about an hour before the building collapsed, at around 3:30 a.m.

Williamson and fellow firefighter Robert Brennan Jr. were trapped beneath the rubble for more than three hours before being pulled out by emergency crews. Williamson, a 27-year veteran of the department who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, died at the scene.

Three other firefighters and an employee of the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections were injured in the collapse.

News of Khalil’s arrest came a day after Williamson’s funeral services, which included a large procession from South Philadelphia to his old firehouse in Nicetown.

During a Mass at Epiphany of Our Lord Church, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said Williamson “was a force for good” and “earned a reputation as one of our best.”

Williamson, at the time of the building collapse, worked at Ladder 18 on Hunting Park Avenue. Previously, he taught at the city’s Fire Academy and served on special search-and-rescue teams.