Philadelphia

Family Is Found Dead Days After Fire, Officials Reveal Response Timeline

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel and Licenses & Inspections Commissioner David Perri will speak on the investigation at a press conference at fire headquarters Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.

As the loved ones of three family members who were found dead nearly three days after a fire tore through their home continue to demand answers, city officials revealed the timeline of their response.

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel and Licenses & Inspections Commissioner David Perri spoke on the investigation at a news conference at fire headquarters Tuesday afternoon.

"While we can never share the family's pain, this is extremely upsetting to us," Thiel said. "Every fire death is tragic. We had ten fire deaths already this year before this night. It's horrifying for us. The circumstances here make this even worse."

The fire started at a building on 1855 North 21st Street on the night of March 20 during a lull in the major nor'easter that battered the region.

Thiel said they received a call from a person who identified as an occupant of the building at 11:40 p.m. Firefighters arrived at the scene at 11:42 p.m.

The responding firefighters observed heavy fire on the second and third floor by the rear of the building.

"It was somewhat inaccessible from the outside of the building due to arcing power lines in the back," Thiel said.

Firefighters received a report from people exiting the burning building that all of the occupants were out, according to Thiel. At 11:51 p.m., firefighters found a resident outside the building who had apparently jumped to escape the fire. That person, who has not yet been identified, died from his injuries.

Two Mayday calls were made during the firefight due to missing firefighters inside the building. The second call was made after stairs from the second floor to the third floor of the building collapsed. All of the firefighters were rescued, however. Two of the firefighters suffered injuries and were treated at the hospital.

The fire was placed under control on March 21, at 12:18 a.m. PECO was also called to the scene to work on arcing wires in the back of the building.

The Fire Marshal's Office arrived at the scene at 12:30 a.m. while the American Red Cross was notified for a displaced man and woman.

Firefighters then put a ladder up inside the building from the second to third floor and searched but didn't find any other victims. 

"They did a limited search of the third floor. Limited to what they could access of the third floor given the conditions up there and given the collapse," Thiel said.

As far as other residents in the building who were unaccounted for, Thiel said the fire marshal was told by surviving building occupants that, "the last time I seen those people was a month ago. They moved out. And I haven't seen those folks in a little while."

Investigators couldn't find any smoke alarms inside the building. They also say the bedroom doors had deadbolt locks and padlocks. While officials continue to investigate the cause of the fire, they determined it began on the second floor. 

Thiel said they then received a phone call at 4:37 p.m. on Friday, March 23 from a person reporting there were missing family members inside the building. Firefighters responded to the scene that day at 5:44 p.m. They then found the bodies of 64-year-old Horace McOuellem, his 25-year-old stepdaughter Alita Johnson, and her 3-year-old son Haashim Johnson inside a third-floor bathroom of the building. 

Thiel said responders then performed extensive shoring to stabilize the building before removing the bodies of the three victims late Friday night.

According to Thiel, investigators believe it was Alita Johnson who made the initial call to them reporting the fire though they have not yet confirmed this.

"We believe the caller that was on the phone with us from 11:40 until 11:48 was Alita but we can't know that for sure at this point," Thiel said. "She identified herself as being inside the building. We had other folks who shortly thereafter exited the building and told us that everybody was out. One male and one female."

Family members of the victims told NBC10 they called the Philadelphia Fire Department and reported that all three of their relatives were missing prior to the discovery Friday night. They said they asked that firefighters go back to the home and search for their bodies.

"I want to know why they waited all this time to go in there and find my granddaughter on the step with her son," Herman Fripp, a family member, said.

Loved ones also expressed their frustrations during a vigil for the victims.

"They took their time just to come out here," said Laleeha, Johnson's cousin. "I had to call 10 different people just for them to do another search."

During Tuesday's news conference however, Thiel said so far they haven't found any phone calls made to the Philadelphia Fire Department on Thursday, March 22 and they responded to the first call they received on March 23.

Fire officials met with the victims' family, answered their questions and gave them the detailed timeline of the response, according to Thiel.

"At the end of the day our firefighters did everything they could under the conditions as they always do," Thiel said. "The conditions in this building were such that despite giving it our best, we couldn't save these folks. We know that we can't save everybody. But I promise you that we tried. At great peril. At great risk."

Loved ones of the victims created a GoFundMe page for funeral expenses.

L&I Commissioner David Perri also revealed the history of the building where the deadly fire took place. According to Perri, the building contained six bedrooms and was being used as a boarding house to accommodate six to 10 people even though the property was zoned as a single family dwelling.

"In essence it was in violation of the zoning code," Perri said. "Since it was a rental property the owner should've had a rental property license which they did not."

Perri also said the building should have had smoke alarms but none were found inside.

The building received a violation for an illegal rooming house in 2014, according to Perri. Perri said the owner of the teproperty agreed to vacate the building and the court case was resolved. The building was re-inspected shortly after and was found to be vacant.

"Sometime after that point, we don't know exactly when, the building owner apparently then started leasing it out as a boarding facility," Perri said.

The building is owned by Granite Hill Properties and the managing partner of the company is Tyrone Duren, a former US Homeland Security Investigations agent currently facing federal charges.

According to court records, Duren was arrested in 2016 for allegedly stealing thousands of dollars from drug money couriers and laundering the dirty money through real estate transactions. He's charged with money laundering, tax evasion, making false statements to federal agents and bank fraud conspiracy.

Perri said they identified 30 other properties in Philadelphia owned by either Granite Hill, Duren or other companies associated with him. L&I will begin inspecting those properties this week.

Family Photos
(L to R), Alita Johnson, Haashim Johnson, Horace
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