Investigators dig into cause of Philadelphia house fire

Northeast

PHILADELPHIA (NewsNation Now) — Investigators Thursday are working to figure out how a fire that tore through a Philadelphia rowhome killing 12 people, including two sisters and several of their children, started.

Eight children lost their lives in the Wednesday morning blaze — the city’s deadliest single fire in more than a century.

At least two people were hospitalized and some others managed to escape from the three-story brick duplex, which was public housing, officials said. Officials said at least 26 people had been staying in the two apartments.

Officials did not release the names or ages of those killed in the blaze, which started before 6:30 a.m.

None of the four smoke alarms appeared to be working, said Craig Murphy, first deputy fire commissioner. The alarms had been inspected annually, and at least two were replaced in 2020, with batteries replaced in the others at that time, Philadelphia Housing Authority officials said. It said the last inspection was in May 2021. Smoke detectors were working at that time, officials said.

The cause of the fire has not been determined. NewsNation reporter Paul Gerke reported investigators are looking into the possibility that the fire may have begun because of a Christmas tree. Another item investigators could be examining is the lack of escape routes within the three-story duplex. Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections does not require escape structures on upper floors.

Nearby Philadelphia resident Eleanora Barbieri said the Philadelphia Housing Authority has been unresponsive to to reports in the past, adding that the victim’s deaths could have been avoided.

“They’re people that need help and we have failed them,” Barbieri said. “We have completely failed them as a society as a city. And they were living in conditions that should never ever been happening in a first-world country like ours. So it’s really upsetting.”

The housing authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As of Thursday, the building’s only recorded code inspection failures were the result of Wednesday’s fire, according to the city’s department of licenses and inspections website.

The fire burned in a residential area of the Fairmount neighborhood, northwest of downtown and home to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its famous steps from the film “Rocky.”

A small group of people, some wrapped in Salvation Army blankets, stared down 23rd Street Wednesday afternoon, where the blaze happened, hugging one another and crying. Several friends of the children stopped by the school, hoping for information, after their texts and calls went unanswered.

Rabiya Turner said she rushed to bring clothes to cousins who escaped the blaze. People gathered at the school for warmth and someone to talk to, she said.

“It’s just like floating — everybody’s floating,” she said before hurrying away.

Officials held a news conference Wednesday near the scene of the fire.

“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,” said Murphy, the deputy fire commissioner.

“Losing so many kids is just devastating,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “Keep these babies in your prayers.”

Crews responded around 6:40 a.m., around five minutes after the first call. Firefighters saw flames shooting from the second-floor front windows in an area believed to be a kitchen, Murphy said. They found “heavy smoke, heat and limited visibility on all floors,” according to a statement Wednesday night from the city.

The odd configuration of the building — originally a single-family home that had been split into two apartments — made it difficult to navigate, he said. Crews brought it under control in less than an hour, he said. Firefighters were able to rescue one child from the building, but the child died.

There were 18 people staying in the upstairs apartment on the second and third floors, and eight staying in the downstairs apartment, which included the first floor and part of the second floor, Murphy said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been in touch with city leaders to express their condolences and offer support to the community.

“HUD’s regional leadership remains in close communication with the city,” the department’s secretary Marcia Fudge said in an official statement. “As we learn more about this situation, we thank the first responders and all others who assisted for their efforts and we are praying for all those affected by this tragedy,”

Murphy noted that 26 was a large number of people to be occupying a duplex, but a spokesperson for Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections said the city does not limit the number of family members who can stay in a single unit. The mayor said people should withhold judgment.

“You don’t know the circumstances of each and every family, and maybe there were relatives and family that needed to be sheltered,” Kenney said. “Obviously the tragedy happened, and we all mourn for it. But we can’t make judgment on the number of people living in the house because sometimes people just need to be indoors.”

“It’s just heartbreaking,” said Andrea Duszenczuk, 68, whose family has long owned a home in the neighborhood and who walked her dog past the home regularly. “A lot of these homes have old wiring — these are probably 125 years old. Who knows what’s behind the walls.”

This story is developing. Refresh for updates.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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