Early on the morning of June 13, 1984, John Keyser and eight other firemen entered a burning rowhome on the 2000 block of Tulip Street in Fishtown, in search of an old woman supposedly trapped on the second floor.
The smoke was thick, and there was garbage and clutter all over the place, so the going was slow. Keyser remembers crawling over a motorcycle in the kitchen. He was approaching the staircase when, with no warning, the house caved in. The floor gave way beneath him, he tumbled into the basement, and multiple stories’ worth of plaster, wooden beams and junk came crashing down on top of the firefighters. Keyser and seven others survived. Fifteen-year veteran Joseph Konrad didn’t.
That, Keyser says, was probably the closest call of his 34 years of fighting fires in the City of Philadelphia. He retired in 2008, satisfied with his career, but happy to end it at the age of 55. “If someone’s hanging out a third-floor window in a burning building, do you really want it to be a 65-year-old guy that goes and gets her?” says Keyser. His family’s financial security was assured, thanks to the city’s pension system. Keyser is paid just shy of $50,000 a year. He’ll get that check for the rest of his life.
And really, who would begrudge him a comfortable retirement? Here’s a man who literally risked his life for the residents of Philadelphia. It seems eminently fair that Keyser is paid enough in retirement to afford a handsome Cape Cod two blocks from Burlholme Park in the Northeast. His condo in Ocean City, Maryland? Well, that’s more than a typical taxpayer can manage. But it’s no palace, and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t earn it.
But there’s a problem. While John Keyser on his own may seem worth every cent, he was just one of the 1,407 municipal employees who retired from the City of Philadelphia in 2008. Each of them is owed a lifelong pension. In all, there are 34,966 city pensioners now receiving monthly checks.
And together, John Keyser and the 34,965 other retirees are making beggars of City Hall.