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Retired Police Officer Killed In Home Flashover Explosion, Three Fighters Injured

Retired Police Officer Killed In Home Flashover Explosion, Three Fighters Injured

Philadelphia Inquirer via YellowBrix

April 22, 2011

PHILADELPHIA – On North Fifth Street in Northern Liberties, Louis Bell was known by his nickname, “Joe” – a friendly retired police officer who enjoyed holiday barbecues, admiring his flower-filled front garden, and sitting on his steps swapping jokes and chitchat.

Whenever a neighbor suffered a loss in the family, Bell, 70, who used a wheelchair after falling ill a few years ago, would make sure to personally offer his condolences, residents said.

On Wednesday, those neighbors mourned his loss after a fast-moving fire ripped through his rowhouse. The blaze also injured three firefighters, one critically.

“I am so sad, I can’t even explain it,” said Mary Thomas, who has lived a few doors down from Bell for almost 40 years. “He was such a sweet person.”

The fire likely began in the basement of the home, on a small cul-de-sac on the 800 block of North Fifth, about 11:30 Tuesday night, fire officials said. Responding firefighters were able to save Bell’s wife and another family member, a man who had been trapped in a second-floor rear window. They were treated for minor injuries and released, authorities said.

While searching for Bell, three firefighters were injured when superheated gases and smoke filled the second floor, Fire Department sources said.

These conditions usually are followed by a “flashover,” a fiery eruption that can be caused by the simultaneous ignition of combustibles in an enclosed area, said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers.

Trapped in the hot smoke, firefighter Joseph Seeger from Ladder Company 3, at Second and York Streets, was forced to jump from a second-floor window, suffering burns and broken bones in his face. He was listed in critical but improving condition at Temple University Hospital, officials said.

Two other firefighters – Lt. Raymond Vozzelli, from Ladder Company 2, and Christine Lardon, from Engine Company 29 – were treated for burns and released.

Bell retired from the Police Department in the early 1990s after 23 years with the force, said John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5.

He had served in the Anti-Crime Unit, an elite plainclothes squad that dealt with violent crime.

“He was a highly decorated officer and outstanding member of the Police Department,” McNesby said. “To have something like this happen is just a tragic event.”

Bell’s son, Kevin, also is a police officer, a 16-year veteran assigned to the 16th District in West Philadelphia. He was not in the house at the time of the blaze.

“We are going to be there for the family,” McNesby said.

Neighbors of Bell stood on their steps Wednesday morning, taking in the gutted home. Bell’s prized garden was burned and trampled during the blaze. In the backyard were piles of burned family paintings, clothing, and albums filled with pictures and postcards.

After becoming ill, Bell would spend nice-weather days on his porch, said neighbor Dorothy Parker.

Thomas said she would often bring him his favorite order from the corner store: a can of Pepsi and a Tastykake.

On a recent especially warm day, Thomas said, Bell made the short trip to the store himself. She recalled they shared a laugh when she said: “You don’t need me anymore.”

On Wednesday, she sighed in sadness. “He was a good man.”