What to Know
- The nine children and three adults who were killed in last week's fire in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood have been identified as Dekwan Robinson, Destiny McDonald, Janiyah Roberts, J'Kwan Robinson, Natasha Wayne, Quientien Tate-McDonald, Quinsha White, Rosalee McDonald, Shaniece Wayne, Taniesha Robinson, Tiffany Robinson and Virginia Thomas.
- Investigators believe with near certainty that a Christmas tree ignited by a lighter started the fire.
- A 5-year-old boy who escaped the fire told investigators he was the one who lit the tree though Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said the boy's words weren't enough evidence for them to deem that the official cause.
Officials have identified the nine children and three adults who were killed in a fast-moving row home fire in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood last week.
Dekwan Robinson, Destiny McDonald, Janiyah Roberts, J'Kwan Robinson, Natasha Wayne, Quientien Tate-McDonald, Quinsha White, Rosalee McDonald, Shaniece Wayne, Taniesha Robinson, Tiffany Robinson and Virginia Thomas all died of smoke inhalation, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Medical Examiner’s Office.
“On behalf of the entire Health Department, I want to express our deepest condolences to those who have been affected by this fire,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said. “We mourn for each of the young mothers and children lost, everything they should have been able to become and to experience, and the tremendous loss experienced by their families, their communities, and our city in this terrible tragedy.”
Get Philly local news, weather forecasts, sports and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Philadelphia newsletters.
The fire started in an apartment that occupied the second and third floors of a three-story row home on the 800 block of North 23rd Street around 6:30 a.m. on January 5.
Investigators believe with near certainty that a Christmas tree ignited by a lighter started the fire.
“We believe with certainty, so 99 to 100 percent confidence, that the first item ignited in this blaze was a Christmas tree," Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said. "A Christmas tree on January 5th. We believe with near certainty, based on the evidence, that the ignition source for that tree was a lighter that was located nearby."
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
Thiel said the fire was "incendiary," meaning investigators don't believe it occurred accidentally.
While investigators confirmed reports that a 5-year-old survivor told them he was the one who lit the tree on fire, they also said the boy's words weren't enough evidence for them to deem that the official cause.
"The only survivor of this was a 5-year-old child and the 5-year-old child, as you've seen reported, certainly said things," Thiel said. "The way the investigation proceeded, was an attempt to disprove the hypothesis that the way the lighter contacted the tree was in the hands of the 5-year-old child. We could not find anything to disprove that hypothesis. That does not prove it. Because we're talking about a 5-year-old child."
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.
The 5-year-old boy was one of 14 people who were inside the home at the time of the fire. Only the 5-year-old, who was found on the second floor where the fire started, and another person who escaped out of the window, survived. Another occupant who was rescued by firefighters later died.
The property was owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. The Philadelphia Fire Department found six inoperable and/or disabled smoke alarms in the unit where the fire occurred. PHA officials said they last inspected the two units in April and May of last year. All smoke detectors were working at those times, according to officials.
The fire was tied for the sixth-deadliest residential fire in the United States since 1980, according to the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association.
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. “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.”
School District of Philadelphia officials confirmed that at least some of the children who died in the blaze attended school in the district.
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 provided 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 was 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. Officials said Tuesday that the school is no longer taking donations. Instead, resources and support for the survivors and loved ones of the victims can be made by calling the Philadelphia Housing Authority at 215-684-5300 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.