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Officer Recognized, 100 Years Later

December 16, 2010 By:
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Marking the centennial of a deadly factory fire are: (from left) Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Former Fire Commissioner Joe Rizzo and Deputy Fire Commissioner John Devlin.
Little is known about Morris Gelles, except his name and final act. One hundred years ago, the 26-year-old Philadelphia police officer charged into a blazing leather factory in Northern Liberties in an effort to rescue trapped firefighters.

According to local newspaper accounts, the weather was so frigid that fire hydrants were completely frozen, greatly hampering efforts to put out the blaze. The inferno raged over the course of two days, Dec. 21 and Dec. 22; in the end, 13 firefighters died and one police officer was killed, but not one civilian.

On the night of the fire, police helped control the gathering crowd, but Gelles, one of the first on the scene, decided to charge in after seeing a wall collapse, according to various accounts.

Reports on the history of the Philadelphia police force support that Gelles -- unmarried, with no known descendants -- is only one of two Jewish officers to have died in the line of duty, says James Binns, a Philadelphia lawyer who has made it a personal mission to honor fallen police and firefighters.

The other fallen Jewish officer, Albert Savich, was shot to death on Dec. 31, 1953, on 19th Street in North Philadelphia.

On Dec. 9 of this year, police, firefighters, public officials, religious leaders and descendants of some of the victims marked the centennial of the fire with a memorial service at the Bodine Street site, where the Friedlander Leather Factory once stood.

The block is now the site of the Piazza at Schmidts, a residential/commercial complex developed by Bart Blatstein.

Plaques for the fallen were unveiled on the sidewalk outside Darlings Diner. Among those in attendance were Cardinal Justin Rigali of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, Deputy Police Commissioner Stephen Johnson, Lt. Gov.-elect Jim Cawley and Rabbi Alan D. Fuchs.

"I had never heard of the fire, but it was obviously a major fire," said Fuchs, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center Center, who recited the Kaddish, as well an English translation of the prayer for the dead, "El Moley Rachamim."

Fuchs was asked to participate by Binns, who said that so far, he's erected plaques for 117 cops, including Savich and 91 firefighters.

Binns, who is of Irish Catholic decent, received the Torch of Liberty Award from the local Anti-Defamation League office. In 1997, he helped start a course on Judaism at Philadelphia's Roman Catholic High School; five years later, he brought ADL national director Abraham Foxman to address the student body.

Referring to Gelles' decision to face danger head on, Binns said: "Can you imagine the courage that this took? This kid was a true hero."


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