Source The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — Two police officers were shot Wednesday afternoon in East Lansdowne while responding to reports that an 11-year-old girl had been shot inside a home that later burst into flames.
And later Wednesday, as investigators struggled to piece together what led to the shooting, they said that as many as eight members of the family that lived inside the home — children and adults — were unaccounted for.
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said the home was still smoldering Wednesday night, preventing investigators from sifting through the ruins. He described the house as a “burned-out hollow.” On Thursday, he said, fire officials and others would begin excavation work in search of evidence.
“It’s going to be a lot of work tomorrow,” he said. “Gruesome work.”
When the officers — one from the East Lansdowne department and the other from Lansdowne — arrived at the scene on Lewis Avenue earlier Wednesday, they were fired upon by a gunman inside the home, authorities said. Not long after, a massive fire broke out on the third floor of the home as the standoff continued with the shooter inside.
The officers, who were each shot once as they dove for cover, were taken to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in stable condition. Stollsteimer said late Wednesday that the veteran officers, both of whom have been in law enforcement for 22 years, were doing well and expected to make a full recovery.
Stollsteimer declined to identify the officers Wednesday night out of respect for their families.
“They ran up toward danger so the rest of us could run away from it, and they were immediately met by gunfire,” Stollsteimer said at Penn Presbyterian. “We expect them to be perfectly fine, but they have been through a trauma.”
Stollsteimer said it was unclear who had fired at the officers or whether anyone else was in the home at the time.
On Wednesday night, he said several family members who lived in the house had not been heard from since the shooting and the blaze began. Because the fire was still smoldering, he said, investigators would not be able to enter the house until Thursday.
“I will say with a heavy heart that we are afraid there might be more than one person in that house,” Stollsteimer said. “We are so concerned about the family members who were living in that house who we have not heard from.
“It could be a lot of bad news tomorrow because these family members are unaccounted for,” he said.
Earlier in the day, speaking outside the hospital, the prosecutor described the harrowing scene that had unfolded earlier that day, as officers from Lansdowne, East Lansdowne and Upper Darby responded to the call just before 4 p.m.
When the first two officers arrived, they were immediately shot at by a gunman inside the home, Stollsteimer said. Their colleagues from Upper Darby arrived moments later, and, seeing that the officers had been injured, radioed for backup.
Other Upper Darby officers arrived, protected by ballistic shields, and dragged the wounded officers to safety as the gunman continued to fire at them, according to Upper Darby Police Superintendent Tim Bernhardt. One was driven immediately in a police car to Penn Presbyterian, while the other was loaded into a waiting ambulance and sent to the same hospital.
“I can’t thank Upper Darby enough for dragging these officers away from the gunfire, or we’d be having a much different conversation tonight,” Stollsteimer said.
After the shooting, fire crews from around Delaware County responded to Lewis Avenue to combat the growing blaze. But they were delayed for nearly an hour in approaching the home by tactical crews working to clear the scene.
Later Wednesday, as fire crews extinguished the blaze, handfuls of neighborhood residents gathered on nearby Pembroke Avenue to try to get as close a view of the home as they could.
Police tape and fire trucks cut off several blocks surrounding the house, snarling traffic around the scene during the afternoon rush hour and preventing some residents from going home at the end of the workday.
Mohammed Hossein, 57, who lives nearby, looked on and tried to get more information about the shooting. He described East Lansdowne as a “quiet neighborhood,” a place where he and his wife routinely feel comfortable going for late-night walks.
East Lansdowne, at 0.02 square miles, is a small slice of eastern Delaware County that borders Upper Darby. It has a population of about 2,700 people, the majority of whom are Black. The borough is mostly residential, with a median household income of $54,000.
At about 6 p.m., residents who lived farther away from the fire were escorted home by police, while the blocks adjacent to Lewis Avenue still remained blocked off.
One woman opted to take her three children to a relative’s home until the fire trucks and helicopters left. Another woman, who declined to give her name for privacy reasons, gave up on trying to get back to the block where the events were taking place.
She said she was on the phone on her way to visit her aunt near the scene when gunshots broke out, and she ducked behind a car. The last thing she told her mother over the phone was to tell her daughter not to come — she was supposed to join her after school.
The rest, said the woman, was a blur.
”I couldn’t move, I lost my phone,” she said.
The woman said all she remembered was officers coming to get her and taking her to a nearby alleyway. Her aunt remained close to the scene and was OK, but the pair had not reconnected in person as of 6 p.m.
Dawn Harris, 61, waited on Pembroke Avenue with neighbors, praying for the safety of anyone in the home.
A resident of East Lansdowne of 25 years, Harris said she’d never seen the area flooded with law enforcement and first responders the way it was Wednesday.
Like others, she described the neighborhood as tranquil.
”I walk my dog at 6 a.m., I feel safe, I walk my dog at 6 p.m., I feel safe,” she said.
Later Wednesday, borough officials set up a relief center in East Lansdowne Borough Hall, where displaced residents could eat and warm up until they were allowed to return home.
Staff writers Anthony R. Wood and Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.