A child was playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree prior to the fast-moving fire inside a Philadelphia row home that killed 12 people, including eight children, in the city’s Fairmount neighborhood, investigative sources told NBC10.
The blaze on the 800 block of North 23rd Street erupted Wednesday morning on the second floor of the three-floor house, which is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. At least 26 people lived in the property, which had been split into two apartments, fire officials said.
According to sources, a child inside the home told investigators that a Christmas tree went up in flames. Sources told NBC10 the child was playing with a lighter near the tree. That child managed to escape the fire.
When firefighters arrived around 6:40 a.m., there was heavy fire coming from a kitchen area on the second floor and heading up the open staircase to the third floor, Philadelphia Fire Department Deputy Commissioner Craig Murphy said. He said there was little to stop the flames from moving.
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“It was terrible. I’ve been around for 35 years now and this is probably one of the worst fires I have ever been to,” Murphy remarked. The fire was tied for the sixth-deadliest residential fire in the United States since 1980, according to the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association.
A neighbor said he heard screams around 6:30 a.m. and came downstairs to find the house ablaze. "It was just such a shocking moment," he said.
As firefighters battled the flames, they discovered multiple people dead in the home. It took 50 minutes to get the blaze under control, according to the city fire department.
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Each of the families living in the property initially moved into the home in 2011, according to the PHA.
“The family grew between 2011 and 2021, adding about eight children to the family household,” PHA President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah said during a Thursday afternoon press conference. “This is a family that wanted to be together. Our mission is to provide safe, sanitary housing. And I think we did so in this case.”
While at least 26 people lived inside the property, Jeremiah said the leasing agreement was for 20 people in the two units.
“Our lease and agreement with the families indicate that 14 authorized residents were supposed to be in Unit B. In Unit A there was supposed to be six members,” Jeremiah said. “This was a time of year when families gather. We are not going to be critical of the families who have suffered this unimaginable loss. We are supporting them in their efforts.”
There were six battery-operated smoke detectors installed in the home, but none were operational at the time of the blaze, firefighters said. Jeremiah said in a written statement that all smoke detectors were working properly when the property was last inspected in May of last year.
The city’s fire marshal and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were investigating the cause of the fire.
The ATF and Philadelphia Fire Department would not comment on specifics during Thursday afternoon’s press conference, but they hinted at a wide-ranging probe.
“What I can tell you is this is a resource-intensive investigation. It’s an exceptional time – manpower staffing, equipment, commitment – to get to the origin and cause of this tragedy,” PFD Deputy Chief Dennis Merrigan said.
Due to the “magnitude of the scene and the significant loss of life,” the ATF has deployed additional resources – including fire protection engineers, electrical engineers and special agents who are experts in how fires ignite – to help with the probe, Matthew Varisco, the special agent in charge of the burau's Philadelphia Field Division, said.
School District of Philadelphia officials confirmed that at least some of the children who died in the blaze attended school in the district. The fire also killed four adults and left two people, including yet another child, in critical condition.
Two of the children were students and three were former students, while the other three seemed to have attended non-SDP schools, district spokeswoman Monica Lewis said. The district will provide counseling and support services to students and staff.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family members, friends and school communities who are grieving this unimaginable loss,” Lewis said.
A “friends and relatives” center has also been set up at Bache-Martin Elementary School to provide help to those impacted by the tragedy, as well as information and assistance for family and friends of the victims, she added.
In addition, the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia – a nonprofit that serves to fiscally connect the private sector to the district – in conjunction with Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council President Darrell Clarke, has set up a fund and is taking donations to support the families affected by the fire.