Philadelphians were saddened by the deaths of two firefighters in a blaze that consumed a vacant Kensington factory in the early hours of April 9, Easter Monday. Lt. Robert Neary, and Firefighter Daniel Sweeney were both members of Ladder 10 Company, Platoon C, and both were products of Catholic schools.
Neary, who died at the scene, was a 37-year veteran of the fire department, and a 1970 graduate of Father Judge High School. Sweeney, who died at Temple University Hospital, was a 2005 graduate of Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote, where his mother, Marian Sweeney is a science teacher. He followed his father, retired Fire Captain David Sweeney, into the department six years ago.
Daniel Sweeney’s April 13 viewing and April 14 funeral Mass were held at St. Cecilia Church, in the Fox Chase section of the city, where he attended grade school and where he was an altar server as a child.
Present in the church and assembled outside were a large number of Philadelphia firefighters and police, augmented by delegations from fire departments around the country and even Canada, as well as family, friends, parishioners and uniformed students from Bishop McDevitt.
Father Charles E. Bonner, who was principal celebrant and homilist of the funeral Mass, said, “Sometimes when things like this happen to Bob Neary and Daniel, we wonder, does God know how we feel, does He know the emptiness, the empty spots we have? Yes, He does,” he said answering his own question, showing how God comforted His people as told in both the Old and New Testaments.
He also reminded the firefighters how the little things they do are appreciated, not just their very dangerous work at fires, using the example of a little girl who always waves as the fire engine passes, and the men always wave back.
Also giving brief reflections were Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers and Archbishop Charles Chaput, who was present in the sanctuary during the Mass.
Turning to the Sweeney family, the Archbishop said, “We love you, we will support you, we will keep you in our prayers, and we thank you most for the gift of your son and brother who was a great example of heroism for all of us.”
Most moving was the reflection given by Marian Sweeney, who remembers her son who was born sucking his thumb and as a baby always clung to her hair. She remembered, too, how when he was in sixth grade he was hit in the face with a hockey puck which knocked his front tooth out. “My mother will kill me,” he exclaimed as he jammed the tooth back into its socket. He needed stitches but the tooth stayed. She remembered to, as a young adult, that he was attending Mass less frequently, but assured her, “I will be back.” And finally, she remembered that last visit to Temple Hospital, where she viewed her son, who had a slight smile on his face.
“Keep us in your prayers, we will need many, many more of them,” she said. “But you don’t have to pray for Daniel, he is with God.”
After the Mass, Daniel Sweeney’s casket was placed on a fire engine, and accompanied by many of his fellow firefighters, it made the solemn journey to his last resting place at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
In addition to his parents, Daniel Sweeney is survived by his three sisters, Suzanne Swedlige and Sarah and Deborah Sweeney.
Robert Neary is survived by his wife, Diane; sons Robert and Christopher, his daughter, Dianne Hernandez, and his mother, Virginia Neary. His public viewing, which also was attended by hundreds of firefighters both locally and around the country, was held April 13 at the John F. Givnish Funeral Home on Academy Road in Philadelphia; services and burial were private.