It took about two hours to extract the bodies of Lt. Robert Neary, 60, and firefighter Daniel Sweeney, 25, because of all the debris, fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said. Two other firefighters were rescued and taken to a hospital for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries.
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of these two firefighters," Mayor Michael Nutter said. "It just hurts a great, great deal."
The blaze, in the city's Kensington section, started around 3:15 a.m. and quickly spread. Dozens of nearby homes were evacuated, and the firefighters were trying to make sure that the blaze was out at the furniture store, where the flames had spread, when a wall and roof collapsed, Ayers said.
Both firefighters were respected members of the fire department and had been commended for a long list of rescues over the years, Ayers said.
Neary, a 37-year veteran of the fire department, served in the Army reserves from 1972 to 1982 and worked as a police officer before joining the fire department. He is survived by his wife, two grown sons and a grown daughter.
He was a mentor to young firefighters like Sweeney and had great instincts while fighting fires, said Timothy McShea, vice president of the firefighters union.
"He was just a great guy, knew the job very well," McShea said. "He's like one of these old-school guys. They just have a second sense about them."
Sweeney, who was single, is survived by his parents. His father is recently retired fire Capt. David Sweeney.
McShea called him "a good young lad."
"Danny was a young, aggressive firefighter," he said.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately determined.
City officials said the warehouse property's corporate owner, York Street Property Development, had been cited three times since November and a fourth citation was issued after a March 29 inspection following a community meeting. Officials said that the city was preparing to take the owner to court as required after the first three violations and that, separately, a sheriff's sale was expected this summer because of unpaid tax and water bills.
Fran Burns, commissioner of the city's Licenses & Inspections department, said York Street Property Development had a zoning permit good through July 2013 for an 81-unit development.
"This isn't a landowner or property owner we couldn't find; this is someone who had a very active interest in the property and has an active and open zoning permit for development," Burns said. "I don't understand, when you have a zoning permit for an 81-unit development, that you don't understand your responsibility to have a secure property."
The New York-based law firm Herrick, Feinstein, representing York Street Property Development, called the fire "an unspeakable tragedy."
"Our condolences and heartfelt prayers go out to the families of Lt. Neary and Firefighter Sweeney, and to their grieving colleagues at the Philadelphia Fire Department," attorney David Feuerstein said in a statement. "We are cooperating, and will continue to do so, with all law enforcement and government agencies as they investigate this fire."
Gillison said city officials were to meet Tuesday with attorneys for the owners, whom they identified as Nahman Lichtenstein, along with Yechiel and Michael Lichtenstein. Burns said the owners, who through York Street Property Development and another firm, were linked to perhaps 34 other properties in the city. A message left for a Philadelphia law firm officials said represented them was not returned Monday evening, nor was a message left for Nahman Lichtenstein.