The flames erupted before sunrise Wednesday and the sound of emergency sirens alerted neighbors in the Fairmount area of Philadelphia that something was wrong. Shortly after, the devastating scale was clear: 12 people, including children, had died in a fire at a row home.
“It was terrible,” Philadelphia Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said of the scene. “This is probably one of the worst fires I ever been to.”
Firefighters faced heavy smoke, heat and limited visibility on all floors when they entered the building, a news release from the city said.
Rescuers pulled a child from the building, who did not survive, and two other people were taken to hospitals, officials said. Eight people were able to escape by themselves, Murphy said.
“This is without a doubt one of the most tragic days in our city’s history – loss of so many people in such a tragic way,” Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday morning. “Losing so many kids is just devastating. … Keep these babies in your prayers.”
Here’s what we know about the tragedy and the investigation:
Family members told CNN three women and nine children were victims in the deadly fire.
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 families. The ages of their children were not given.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
Bill Richards, who said he’s lived on the block for 24 years, told WPVI that before he knew of the fire, he heard a woman yell, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” He then heard fire trucks and went outside.
“It’s very upsetting,” Richards 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.
The fire took place at a home that records show is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, a municipal agency that leases homes to people with low income.
It was 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.
Officials with the Philadelphia Housing Authority 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.”
In 2011, three people moved into Unit A and six into Unit B. In the four-bedroom unit B, the family grew 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.”
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,” Murphy, the fire commissioner, noted.
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 fire.
Neither PHA nor fire officials would comment on the suspected cause of the fire Thursday.
Murphy told reporters during a news conference Thursday that the Philadelphia Police Department and the ATF Philadelphia branch were assisting with the investigation.
“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.
The city “owes it to the victims, the survivors, and to all Philadelphians to conduct a thorough investigation into this travesty, so that we can make sure it never happens again,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said.
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.
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.
CNN’s Caroll Alvarado, Laura Dolan, Mark Morales and Kristina Sgueglia contributed to this report.