A firefighter who had 11 years of service with the Philadelphia Fire Department perished battling a fire in North Philadelphia, after the structure he was inside collapsed and trapped him under debris. The January 6, 2018, fire and collapse also claimed the life of a resident who was inside the home. Investigators will now work to determine what caused the deadly structural fire, what led to the collapse, and what role the building’s age played in the tragedy.
Older buildings can have deficiencies both in how they were built and how they’ve been maintained, and either issue can factor into a building collapse.
Colleagues “Without Words” at Death of Firefighter after Colorado Street Structure Fire
The fire broke out on the morning of Saturday, January 6, 2018, at 2240 Colorado Street in north Philadelphia. It was inside an older two-story rowhouse, one of many similar looking buildings on the street.
A witness reported the fire in a phone call made to the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD) at 8:51 a.m. and Engine 45/Platoon A responded. It took the crew only three minutes to reach the home and begin rescue efforts. Forty-two-year-old Lt. Matthew LeTourneau moved into the building alongside his fellow firefighters and begin to battle the blaze inside. LeTourneau, however, was killed as he worked to extinguish the fire.
The PFD has not made any statements as to the cause of the fire, but Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said afterward that an “interior structural collapse” occurred, and that LeTourneau was trapped beneath debris following the collapse.
It took firefighters 30 minutes to free LeTourneau from where he was trapped, but Thiel said that the lieutenant, “was never alone” in that that time, with rescue efforts beginning immediately.
LeTourneau was taken to Temple University Hospital once rescuers freed him, but was pronounced dead at 11:07 a.m.
“Our hearts are breaking,” Thiel said in a statement. “And we are without words.”
The resident of the home, 61-year-old Delgara Lane, also died in the incident, and two other firefighters were injured in the North Philadelphia building collapse. Both firefighters were taken to Temple University Hospital for the treatment of non-life-threatening injuries.
ATF Will Lead Investigation into North Philadelphia Building Collapse
An investigation into the cause of the fire and the collapse will be led by a National Response Team with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They will be joined in their efforts by the PFD and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Safety concerns have delayed the investigation with the collapsed structure and extreme winter weather conditions, but once the site is secured, the National Response Team is expected to make a digital map of the burnt and collapsed home to create a “forensic blueprint.” That digital map will then be used to find details on the cause of the structure fire and where it originated.
A Fire Research Lab operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Maryland will also be utilized, and an electrical engineer will contribute to the investigation.
Neighbor Says Resident Had Just Purchased New Heater Before Fire Broke Out
Sherel Smith lived next door to Lane and said that she ran into him in the very early morning hours that day, at approximately 2:00 a.m. She said Lane was holding a heater that he told her he had just purchased to warm his home, which didn’t have any other heat source.
“He said he was going to turn on his heater and stay in the house,” Smith told The Inquirer in an interview. Please post in slightly larger font
Melvin Carter lives across the street from the building that caught fire and woke up when he heard two explosions at approximately 8:30 a.m. Carter ran into the street and saw that Lane’s home was on fire, with flames coming from the windows on the first floor facing the street. He attempted to help Lane, but the blaze prevented him from assisting. So, instead, Carter went next door to Smith’s home, where he pounded on the door until Smith and her boyfriend, Monttwain Silas, woke up. The duo realized that there was already smoke inside their home, and quickly fled.
“Thank God he banged on our door for that long,” Smith recounted. “Because we would have died from smoke inhalation.”
Fallen Firefighter Was Working His Last Shift at Engine 45
LeTourneau’s death has affected those around him, with firefighters, police, and others in the community praising his character.
LeTourneau had been with the PFD for years. He was just two days shy of his 11th anniversary with the Department, and the day of the North Philadelphia building collapse was to be his last with Engine 45. LeTourneau was scheduled for routine reassignment to a new station the following day.
LeTourneau’s long career in firefighting began when he graduated from Delaware County Community College with a degree in fire science. He went on to serve at Engine 43 and Engine 57 and received a unit citation in 2010. LeTourneau obtained a promotion to lieutenant in 2015, the same year he got a letter of commendation regarding his efforts during the World Meeting of Families.
Outside of the fire department, LeTourneau still made it a priority to give back. He loved pets and was a volunteer and foster for the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team—in addition to having two cats at home that he rescued from a fire.
Flags to Fly at Half-Staff, Funeral Set
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced that City of Philadelphia flags would fly at half-staff for 30 days to honor LeTourneau’s memory.
Mayor Kenney also issued a statement thanking LeTourneau and other firefighters for their service:
I am deeply saddened to hear of the loss of Lt. Matthew LeTourneau. I am grateful for his outstanding service to our city during his 11-year career. It is always a tragedy to lose a first responder in the line of duty. Lt. LeTourneau sacrificed his life trying to save others. Our firefighters demonstrate tremendous acts of heroism every single day. I extend my sincerest condolences to his family. Please keep his loved ones in your thoughts and prayers during this very difficult time.
Public viewings for LeTourneau will be held on January 11th and 12th, and a funeral mass will also be held on the 12th. All events will be held at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.