02:08 - Source: CNN
Deputy fire commissioner calls deadly house fire 'one of the worst'
CNN  — 

Three women who were sisters and all but one of their children were identified as the victims in the fire at a Philadelphia row home that left 12 people dead, according to their cousins, Frank and Pamela McDonald.

Sisters Rosalee McDonald, 33; Virginia Thomas, 30, and Quinsha White, 18, were killed. Six of McDonald’s children and three of Thomas’ children also died in the fire, according to their family. The ages of their children were not given.

From left: Virginia Thomas, Rosalee McDonald and Quinsha White

Thomas’ 5-year-old son survived, her cousin told CNN. A city news release initially said eight children and four adults were killed in the fire.

Authorities are also trying to determine if a lit Christmas tree in the home might have touched off the blaze.

“They were both good people, good mothers and were very family-oriented,” Frank McDonald told CNN. “Rosalee was one of the best people you could ever meet. She was very supportive – they both were. They came down to help me with my business when I opened it.”

The distraught family members said the sisters were very close and have lived together in the apartment since they were teenagers. The family has started a GoFundMe page to help pay for the funeral expenses of several of their family members.

Officials with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, a municipal agency that leases homes to people with low incomes, said Thursday there were 20 people living between the two subdivided units in the row home, despite fire officials saying Wednesday there were 26.

“I don’t know how they were able to ascertain that,” said Kelvin A. Jeremiah, PHA president and CEO. “The authorized number of residents would be the folks who are indicated on our leases, and in both of those units the combined total should be 20 – six and 14.”

Kelvin A. Jeremiah, Philadelphia Housing Authority president and CEO, speaks to reporters on Thursday, January 6, 2022.

In 2011, three people moved into Unit A and six in Unit B. In the four-bedroom unit B, the family grew exponentially between 2011 and 2021, with at least eight children added to the household, Jeremiah said.

Jeremiah described the family in Unit B as a multi-generational family consisting of a grandmother, her three daughters and their children. The family wanted to stay together and the PHA does not have occupancy limits.

“Our policies and procedures do not evict people because they have children,” Jeremiah said. “We don’t remove them because their families are growing.”

The deadly fire along with persistent questions about why there were so many people living in each unit has put the spotlight on deep issues plaguing the US including the state of affordable housing, class relations and cultural misunderstandings, Jeremiah said.

When a reporter asked Jeremiah why PHA didn’t move some of the residents in either apartment into another unit, the CEO replied that there was no indication the family wanted to do that.

“It’s a question, perhaps, that resonates, particularly, with Black and Brown communities,” Jeremiah said, adding that he himself grew up in a similar unit with 16 people.

Federal agencies are helping with the investigation

Firefighters responded to flames around 6:40 a.m. Wednesday and found “heavy fire” in a kitchen area at the front of the second floor, officials said. There was “nothing slowing that fire from moving,” said Philadelphia Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy.

Murphy told reporters during a news conference Thursday that the Philadelphia Police Department and the ATF Philadelphia branch were assisting with the investigation.

Neither PHA nor fire officials would comment on the suspected cause of the fire. Investigators are trying to determine if a child under the age of 5 playing with a lighter under a tree was the cause of the deadly fire, according to Jane Roh, spokesperson for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office.

This is just one avenue investigators are pursuing, among other leads, Roh said, and there are currently no plans to bring charges against anyone in relation to the deadly fire.

“It’s a very traumatic scene, it’s a very complex investigation,” said Fire Deputy Chief Dennis Merrigan with the Philadelphia Fire Marshal’s Office. “It’s something that would challenge us if we had to do it on our own.”

Matthew Varisco, ATF special agent in charge, said there will be no expense spared in the investigation.

The resources that will be deployed, Merrigan said, include laser scanners.

“It’s like 3D cameras. As opposed to taking hundreds and hundreds of still pictures, we’re going to scan the entire room, that way it’s almost like a virtual reality. We can take that scene later, go back and look at the computer and look at it in extreme detail,” he said.

PHA units were legally split in the 1950s

The fire took place at a row home that had been legally subdivided into two apartments since the 1950s and has had no violations, according to a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections.

The building, according to records, was estimated to have been built in 1920.

Bystanders watch as the firefighters work at the scene of a deadly row house fire in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

Jeremiah said PHA took pride in investing in its infrastructure, despite being a cash-strapped agency.

“The conditions in our nation’s public housing is deteriorating, in some cases it is abysmal,” he said. “You look anywhere across this country – from New York to LA to Seattle to Florida, you name the city – the condition of the nation’s public housing is just in a disgusting state.”

While conditions continue to decline, he said, families are left waiting.

“They can wait no more. It has become a question of life and death for too many families,” Jeremiah said.

PHA replaced smoke detectors in 2019 and 2020, official says

Murphy initially told reporters that four smoke detectors were in the building, “and none of them operated.”

Murphy later indicated that Philadelphia Housing Authority records show that at least six battery-operated smoke detectors had been installed there from 2019 to 2020.

However, Dinesh Indala, PHA’s senior executive vice president of operations, said the agency had different information about the detectors.

The Philadelphia fire department works at the scene of a deadly row house fire in Philadelphia on January 5, 2022.

Unit A of the apartment had seven smoke detectors and three carbon monoxide detectors at its last inspection, Indala said Thursday. Unit B had six functional smoke detectors and three functional carbon monoxide detectors as of its last inspection in May 2021, Indala said.

Two batteries and two smoke detectors were replaced in 2021, Indala said. Smoke detectors also were replaced in the B unit in an inspection in September 2019, according to Indala.

“When we last conducted our inspection, the smoke detectors were, in fact, working,” Jeremiah, the PHA CEO, said. “If the fire marshal determined, as a result of this fire, that they were not, in fact, working or they were not, in fact, operational, it would be that they were tampered with or the batteries were somehow removed. We don’t go into units and remove batteries.”

Faulty smoke detectors are treated as emergencies and are replaced in 24 hours if requested, Indala said, and the authority does inspections annually.

“Every time we come in for an inspection, as is evident from the last one, we had to replace two batteries, replace the smoke detectors. And these are 10-year smoke detectors, so that’s something we run into quite often on our properties,” Indala said.

Residents describe escape escaping flames

Qaadira Purifoy said her family suffered an unimaginable loss. Two of her sisters and four of her nieces and nephews died in the fire, she told CNN affiliate KYW-TV.

“Losing sisters, I never thought this would happen,” Purifoy said. “Sisters, nieces and nephews.”

Debra Jackson’s sister was able to escape the home’s first floor with three of her children, she told KYW-TV.

People react near the scene of a deadly row house fire, Wednesday, January 5, 2022, in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia.

“Two of her sons got burned, she probably is just smoke inhalation. But thank God that they’re alive,” Jackson said. “My heart goes out to the family that lost all their family.”

Philadelphia’s school district said Wednesday it was working with City Council President Darrell Clarke to set up a fund to help the affected families.

Some of the children who died were students in city schools, the district said, without saying how many. The district said it also has made counseling and support services available for grieving students.

Neighbors and others – some sobbing – gathered outside the burned row house as firefighters and police worked the scene Wednesday morning, CNN affiliate WPVI reported.

“It’s very upsetting,” Richards, who also lives on the block, told WPVI. “I just can’t wrap myself around it.”

Richards described the area as “a very family-oriented neighborhood.”

“We’ll help each other get through the grief,” he said.

CNN’s Kelly McCleary, Caroll Alvarado, Laura Dolan, Mark Morales and Kristina Sgueglia contributed to this report.