Philly Firefighter Is City's First Woman to Die on Duty

A female firefighter has lost her life in the line of duty for the first time in Philadelphia's history.

Joyce Craig-Lewis, a decorated 11-year-veteran of the department, died after being trapped fighting a blaze in the basement of a West Oak Lane home early Tuesday morning, city officials said.

"This brave firefighter gave her life trying to save the life of an elderly, frail woman this morning," Mayor Michael Nutter said. The woman was safely rescued during the fire.

The 36-year-old mother of two was one of only 150 women serving in the Philadelphia Fire Department, which is made up of more than 2,100 firefighters, paramedics and officers.

“She had a strong work ethic. She prided herself in working at busy engine companies,” said Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer, who knew Craig-Lewis personally.

Craig-Lewis, along with several other crew members, was part of the initial attack group that entered the rowhome that went up in flames around 3:15 a.m. along the 1600 block of Middelton Street, Sawyer said.

A "chimney effect" caused smoke and flames to pour up the basement steps and at the firefighter, he said. At some point conditions worsened and fire command ordered crews out of the home, but Craig-Lewis became trapped, Sawyer said.

She radioed for help and crews went back into the basement, officials said.

"After the withdrawal, they realized that firefighter Craig-Lewis was missing. They went back in to search for her and they were not able to get her out before she passed," Sawyer said.

Once out of the house, she was given CPR and rushed to Albert Einstein Medical Center. Doctors pronounced her dead around 4 a.m.

Craig-Lewis is survived by two children — 16-year-old Mahki Donte Green and 16-month-old Laylani Lewis — as well as her parents and three siblings.

She worked at Engine 64 in the city's Lawncrest neighborhood. She was moved to that company three years ago. But, Tuesday morning, the woman was working an overtime shift with Engine 73, colleagues said.

"We suffered a tragic loss here this morning," said Mayor Michael Nutter. "This is still under investigation, there are some details we just don't have."

Firefighter's union president Joe Shulle said it's possible that a flashover happened, which is where an entire room bursts into flames. In seconds, he said, the room's temperature could climb to more than 1,000 degrees and that there could be zero visibility.

The Philadelphia Fire Marshal is investigating the fire and Craig-Lewis' death.

Fire officials have collected Craig-Lewis' equipment and are sending it to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health for inspection. One specific area officials will be focusing on is whether her safety alert device was activated.

The PASS — or Personal Alert Safety System — device, attached to a breathing tank, sends out an audible distress signal, similar to the sound a smoke detector makes. It can be manually activated by a firefighter in distress or will automatically turn on if a firefighter is horizontal and motionless for 20 seconds, Sawyer said.

Crew members learned their colleague died as they stood along Middleton Street, just outside the home where she died. 

Authorities held drivers around 8:45 a.m. Tuesday on the southbound lanes of the Roosevelt Boulevard as traffic entered Interstate 76 to allow a procession, which transports the woman's body, to pass.

A firefighter and police officers could be seen saluting the passing emergency vehicles. Flowers now sit over her locker at Engine 64 and black bunting is draped over the firehouse's garage.

The last firefighter killed in the line of duty was Capt. Michael Goodwin, who died on April 6, 2013.

Goodwin, a 29-year fire department veteran, was on the roof of a building near 4th and Fitzwater streets when it collapsed. He was pronounced dead at the scene of the Fabric Row blaze.

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