On Gesner Street, Shock & Sorrow
Gesner Street’s soul is gone.
Half of the tree-less one-block street, lined with rowhomes with white and brown porches and sandwiched between 66th and 67th Streets in Southwest Philadelphia, is a shell of its former self. A fast-moving blaze destroyed the homes of 32 people and ripped away four of its youngest residents.
“They were the sweetest kids, a little shy but sweet,” said neighbor Tameka Harrinton as she stood across the street from the eight charred structures. “The fire moved too fast. It was too late to warn people. There was nothing I could do but watch it burn.”
The early Saturday morning blaze burned so intensely that parts of Ali Altidor’s green Subuaru Forrester melted. The car was parked across the street from the homes, the side-panel left hanging like taffy from the car’s chassis. But all he could think about were 4-year-old twins Maria and Marialla Bowah, 1-year-old Taj Jacque and 4-year-old Patrick Sanyeah.
“I just saw the kids two days prior running up and down the street and happy,” he said.
Behind his Subaru, siding on the upper A-frame of several houses mimics the car’s side-panel. It’s hard to find a home untouched by the flames — physically, emotionally or both.
Those neighbors, many who have immigrated from Liberia, sit on their stoops and porches and cry as they stare down the ruins. Gawkers broke their gaze as they walk by to catch a glimpse at the damage.
Feet away, church officials and community leaders offered food and clothing to those affected outside the Christ International Baptist Church, which anchors the block’s northwestern corner.
As the day dragged on, the shock of the loss set in. A steady stream of tears flowed as family members of the victims and those who lost their homes returned. Many stood in circles, held hands and prayed for the children’s souls.
A memorial for the boys was placed feet from where they died — in the basement of 6518 Gesner St. Photos of the boys and Spiderman and Iron Man balloons, Taj and Patrick’s favorite, created a stark pop of red, white and blue on a canvas of blackened wood. A speed limit sign reading, “Drive Carefully, Watch Children,” stands across from the home.
“It’s their home, it’s their home,” said the boy’s uncle Preston Jacque. He fought back tears and forced a smile as he surveyed the scene. “It killed all of them.”
A woman, another relative of the children, paced up and down the street overcome by grief. “All four are dead. They all died in one day,” she yelled out before being dragged away crying.
Some homeowners pushed past orange warning signs that had been stapled to their front door by city inspectors. They wanted to see the damage for themselves and gather whatever belongings they could.
Tamba S. Lebbie was one of them. He carried out suitcases full of his belongings, only 12 hours after jumping from a second floor window in the back of his house. The drop left him with a nasty cut to his right leg.
“We had to bust the window and jump from there,” he said before thanking his nephew for waking him. “It was a horror. No one knew where the fire was coming from.”
Lebbie said he was traumatized, but thankful he made it out alive. His home was four down from where the fire began. Tonight, he’s joining his neighbors at the Red Cross House — replacing his bed for one there. But he’s not planning to return to the block he’s called home for six years. The loss is just too much to bear.
“I want to move far away from here,” he said.