Hamodia bills itself as the haredi world's daily paper. Its publisher, Ruth Lichtenstein, is the wife of one of the Gur hasid owners of a neglected warehouse that burned Monday, killing two Philadelphia firefighters – the first firefighter deaths in the city in years.
I-Team Exposes Dozens Of Properties Owned By Kensington Warehouse Owners
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The wife of one of the property owners of the Kensington warehouse that burned Monday, killing two Philadelphia firefighters, says now is not the time to discuss the tragedy.
She was not happy to see the CBS 3 I-Team at her Brooklyn doorstep on Wednesday afternoon.
“I cannot answer you any questions,” Ruth Lichtenstein said to I-Team reporter Ben Simmoneau. “I don’t think this is the time nor the place to speak about this terrible tragedy.”
Ruth Lichtenstein identified herself as “with the Lichtensteins” when asked by the I-Team, and a worker identified her as Ruth, the wife of Nahman Lichtenstein. Nahman Lichtenstein was identified by the city as one of the owners of the old Thomas Buck Hosiery factory which burned to the ground Monday, along with Yechiel and Michael Lichtenstein.
The three Lichtensteins own 30 properties across Philadelphia under various names like “YML Realty” or “YML Housing LP.” The properties are in various states of repair – and range from boarded up row homes to an unfinished and blighted high-end condo conversion on Market Street in Center City. The city on Wednesday released a lengthy list of citations against the Lichtensteins’ properties. Officials say they were cited three times prior to Monday’s fire for “unsafe” conditions at the Kensington property, yet the city says they took no action to seal the building.
The Lichtensteins also owe the city $385,000 in back-due property taxes for their properties.
“Can you explain how you owe the city $385,000 in back due property taxes?” I-Team reporter Ben Simmoneau asked Ruth Lichtenstein.
“If you want to know anything, we have a lawyer, and you can talk to him,” she said. A spokesman for the Lichtensteins’ law firm, Herrick, Feinstein in New York, declined comment for the second day in a row on Wednesday.
Ruth Lichtenstein also refused to answer our questions about why her husband’s company ignored the city’s citations at the Kensington property.
“Stop walking after me,” she told Simmoneau.
“We need to get serious about letting owners of properties know they have to take care of their properties,” said State Representative Kevin Boyle. “I think ultimately the people who are to blame are the owners of this property.”
Rep. Boyle says he’s had numerous complaints about New York speculators buying up properties in his Northeast Philadelphia neighborhoods, then neglecting those properties. He says they can buy properties cheaply, ignore them for years, then hope to turn a profit by selling them for double or more as neighborhoods see their property values rise.
“We need to get focus from the top that this is a very serious issue that is driving thousands of Northeast Philadelphians out of the city,” Rep. Boyle said. “I’m very concerned that this won’t be the last time.”
Meanwhile, a grand jury has been convened:
Grand jury to probe Kensington blaze that killed 2 firefighters
Allison Steele and Troy Graham • Philadelphia Inquirer
A Philadelphia grand jury will investigate the Kensington blaze that killed two firefighters last week to determine if criminal charges are warranted, the District Attorney's Office said Tuesday.
Mayor Nutter, who has sharply criticized the owners of the former Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building for not responding to safety citations issued by the city, said he supported the grand jury's involvement.
"It will help us to get some answers to a number of unanswered questions. . . . It is absolutely the most appropriate next step," Nutter said. "We need to get to the bottom of what happened out there."
Michael A. Schwartz, attorney for the Lichtenstein family, which owns the property, declined to comment Tuesday, but he said his clients were cooperating with the District Attorney's Office.
Nutter said that all city agencies would cooperate with the investigation and that the city was conducting its own probe. The fire, he said, is a chance to "send a message" to other property owners that they must take responsibility for making their buildings safe.
An investigation into the cause of the fire is pending. Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said all findings in the case would go to the grand jury.
Bill Gault, president of Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, applauded the decision and lashed out at "the absentee landlord who allowed the warehouse to become a death trap."
"We lost two of our own, and we'll never get them back," Gault said in an e-mailed statement. "We can, however, send a zero-tolerance message to these reckless landlords that we're coming after you and holding you criminally responsible for your willful negligence in the hopes that a tragedy of this magnitude never happens again."
The five-alarm fire at the former mill erupted early April 9 and spread quickly as high winds whipped the flames into an inferno. Philadelphia Fire Lt. Robert Neary and firefighter Daniel Sweeney were killed when a wall collapsed in an adjoining furniture store, where they were containing the fire.
Neighbors said they had complained to the city about the building's condition numerous times and feared it would go up in flames.