Harrisburg fire raises neighbors’ concerns about abandoned houses

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A house fire in Harrisburg Tuesday morning brought several neighbors together in more ways than one.

Firefighters arrived on the scene to put out the fire at South 14th and Vernon streets just before 9 am, only to be told by witnesses that those who were inside got out and took off.

South 14th Street is lined with rowhouses, but the concern for the fire spreading from one house to the next isn’t the only thing worrying neighbors.

Cellphone video taken by Genesis Bonilla shows how a house fire brought many neighbors in one Harrisburg community together for a common goal, as they fight an ongoing problem.

“I hear fuego, fuego, and I’m like what is she talking about, so when I look out the window, I see that there’s a fire,” Bonilla said.

Neighbor Ada Garcia said “I started knocking on my neighbors door, banging on the door to get them out, they have children. They have people living in these houses.”

“The gentleman that is squatting in the building was has hanging out the second floor. We had to help him out,” Garcia said.

Neighbor Brandon Cruz said “so I ran and grabbed a trash can to try to help himself, with their fall, he was a pretty decent sized guy.”

Bonilla said “he got on the ground or whatever, and he bounced from the dumpster, bounced onto the floor, and then he took off. After that, we saw the other man run from the back of the house.”

The house that firefighters said was abandoned, is one that neighbors said was a home for squatters.

“Many of the neighbors have been complaining because they go in there and they smoke and they leave the fire on and stuff like that,” Bonilla said.

“Not even three days ago we had an officer out here, and we told them we were having squatters in that house, and there’s drug activity, prostitution and stuff like that in that house,” Garcia said.

Many neighbors believed it was just a matter of time before one of the abandoned houses on their block would catch fire.

“We were concerned about the activity causing a fire and coming down the street here, and they were told they couldn’t do anything unless they actually found people in there squatting. They had to physically find them there. The owner would have to press charges for them to do anything but the owner is deceased,” Garcia said.

While people worked together to help save someone they say didn’t live in their neighborhood, they’re also united in their hope to save their street.

“They have so many abandoned properties in Harrisburg and such a lot of problems with drug activity in Harrisburg, they can’t keep up with it,” Garcia said.

“Squatters been in here, and people doing other things that they shouldn’t be doing,” Cruz said.

“I feel as though the state should do something about it, because it’s dangerous,” Bonilla said.

Firefighters said abandoned houses also are dangerous for them as they have no idea about what to expect inside, but they still go in the building.

Harrisburg Bureau of Fire Deputy Chief Michael Souder said “there might be someone sleeping in there, they’re not supposed to be, but they may be. So, we still have to do our due diligence and try to clear that to make sure there wasn’t someone in there.”