Tragedy in Philly

The Mystery Death Of A Female Firefighter

No one knows how Joyce Craig-Lewis died while battling a blaze on Dec. 9, but the first female firefighter to fall in the line of duty is being called a “hero.”

Joshua Scott Albert

Firefighters came to North Philadelphia from as far as St. Louis on Saturday to pay their respects to a fallen comrade described by one family member as “tough as nails.”

A procession of emergency vehicles followed behind a fire truck carrying the body of 36-year old Joyce Craig-Lewis—who on Tuesday became the first female firefighter to die in the line of duty in Philadelphia history.

Uniformed mourners filed one-by-one past her coffin—graced by two honor guards—many of them standing at attention in a final salute.

Mayor Michael Nutter offered his condolences to the family and declared a 30-day mourning period during which all city flags will be flown at half-staff.

“Your loss is our loss and we are in this together,” Nutter said. “Please know she has a very special place in our collective hearts.”

Craig-Lewis was an 11-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department, a position she had aspired to since grade school. Family and friends describe her as highly dedicated to her job, if not borderline workaholic. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, her boyfriend, Jason Anderson, said Craig-Lewis was “all consumed” by her job.

She wasn’t even supposed to be working the night she was killed. A member of Engine Company 64, she was picking up an overtime shift at a neighboring firehouse on the morning of Dec. 9, when a call came in at 2:49 a.m. of a residential fire.

The truck Craig-Lewis was riding in was first on the scene, and she was part of a three-member “attack crew” responsible for getting the fire under control. She was separated from her colleagues after they were overcome by smoke and heat and ordered to withdraw.

“After the withdraw, they realized that firefighter Craig-Lewis was missing,” said Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer. “They went in to search for her and were not able to get her out before she passed.”

Several key details surrounding Craig-Lewis’s death remain unknown. The Philadelphia Fire Marshall—aided by agents from the federal department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms—is still trying to determine the cause of the blaze, which was confined to the basement. Autopsy results are pending, but according to preliminary reports Craig-Lewis was unresponsive when she was found near a window in the home’s dining room. Efforts to resuscitate her failed and she was pronounced dead at nearby Albert Einstein Medical Center.

What is not yet clear is how such an experienced firefighter got in trouble responding to what should have been a relatively routine call. Fire investigators are now working to piece together details of the Craig-Lewis’ final minutes as she struggled to escape the burning row house where she and her colleagues had just rescued an elderly woman.

Executive Fire Chief Clifford Gilliam would not identify the other two firefighters who were part of Craig-Lewis’s team, and declined to comment on details of the investigation beyond saying it is “ongoing.” But he insisted that there is nothing about her death to provoke additional scrutiny.

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“This [investigation] is part of routine procedure following the death of any firefighter,” he told The Daily Beast. Since the beginning of the year, 84 firefighters across the nation have died while doing their jobs, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

Craig-Lewis’s is the latest loss for a Philadelphia fire-fighting community that has already suffered several devastating fatalities over the past two years. In April, 2013, Capt. Mike Goodwin, a 29-year veteran of the department, died when a three-story building collapsed beneath him while he was fighting a fire in a South Philadelphia fabric shop.

Exactly one year earlier, the department lost two firefighters. Lieutenant Robert Neary, 60, and Daniel Sweeney—a 25-year old rookie—were killed while battling a massive 5-alarm blaze at an abandoned warehouse in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Neary had held the rank of lieutenant since 1983 and received multiple commendations during nearly four decades on the job. His death was particularly difficult for the veteran firefighters who had spent years working alongside him.

“Each time this department loses a member we are all affected,” said Joe Schulle, President of the Philadelphia Firefighters Union. “The effects of a firefighter fatality on the men and women of the Fire Department are debilitating. Everyone feels it as though they lost a close family member.”

On Friday, black bunting graced firehouses across the city and flags flew at half-staff in remembrance of a firefighter who friends and neighbors are calling a “hero.” No one answered the door Friday morning at Craig-Lewis’s engine house in the Lawncrest section of the city. Outside, about a half-dozen former colleagues and well-wishers waited in the cold to pay their respects with care packages of food and soda.

Craig-Lewis is survived by two children, a 16-year old son and a 16-month old daughter. They will now face the holidays without their mother.

Chelle Auty—a firefighter in the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem—has created a memorial fund Craig-Lewis’s name and is in the process of organizing several events to provide toys and gift cards for the dead firefighter’s children. Auty says a line-of-duty death resonates strongly with all firefighters, and the fund’s Facebook page has logged visitors from across the U.S.

“With a lot of firehouses, on a normal day there’s a lot of competition between different engine houses and municipalities,” she said, “but then something like this happens and it really brings everybody together.”

A longtime colleague and former Fire Academy classmate of Craig-Lewis—who asked not to be identified by name because her superiors requested she not talk to the press—said Craig-Lewis represented the “best of the job.”

“She had heart. She was always looking out for the next person,” she said. “A lot of people think females are too weak for the job, but I know that all the men she worked with saw her as one of the guys.”Schulle of the Philadelphia Firefighters Union says one PFD commander said Craig-Lewis “really had her shit together.”

“The best compliment a firefighter can be bestowed is that they’re a good firefighter,” he said. “Joyce was a good firefighter.”