Kensington fire investigation being submitted to grand jury (UPDATE)

After pressure from city officials in the wake of a Kensington warehouse blaze that killed two firefighters, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office has impaneled a grand jury to determine whether the property owners should face criminal charges.

The five-alarm blaze happened at the Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building on April 9. Lt. Robert Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney were both killed while inspecting an adjacent building when a wall collapsed. Two other firefighters were also injured.

In the aftermath of the fire, the city released documents showing three citations from Licenses and Inspections to the property owners, Yeichiel and Michael Lichtenstein, of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based YML Realty Holdings, for failure to secure the building.

Mayor Michael Nutter yesterday applauded District Attorney Seth Williams’ decision to turn the investigation over to a grand jury.

“It is absolutely the most appropriate next step in this issue. We need to get to the bottom of what really happened out there and we’ll see where things go from there,” Nutter said.

He added that the city is compiling a list of all large vacant properties and owners of multiple properties that could pose potential hazards. He also said all city departments have been told to cooperate fully with the grand jury investigation, which will likely take weeks.

Local 22 Firefighters Union President Bill Gault said he hopes the possibility of criminal charges will send a message to absentee landlords.

“We lost two of our own and will never get them back. We can, however, send a zero-tolerance message to these absentee landlords that we are coming after you and holding you criminally responsible for your willful negligence in the hopes that a tragedy of this magnitude never happens again,” Gault said.

An attorney representing the property owners could not be immediately reached for comment. The cause of the fire has not yet been released.

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