At least 12 people, including 8 children, killed in Philadelphia rowhouse fire, officials say

PHILADELPHIA – At least 12 people, including eight children, were killed Wednesday when a fire tore through a crowded Philadelphia rowhouse, officials said, in what the mayor called “one of the most tragic days in our city’s history.”

Eight people escaped the fire in the city’s Fairmount district, and first responders took an adult and a child to hospitals, First Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy told reporters. A fire department spokesperson late Wednesday revised the number of dead, which had been put at 13, including seven children.

“Please keep all of these folks, and especially these children, in our prayers,” Mayor Jim Kenney, D, said at an emotional news conference. “Losing so many kids is devastating.”

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Firefighters said they arrived at the three-story, 2,300-square-foot rowhouse, operated by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, in the 800 block of North 23rd Street about 6:40 a.m. and saw flames shooting up from the second floor.

In a news release Wednesday night that revised the number of dead, the city said firefighters removed “one child from the building, but the child did not survive.”

Witnesses told local media that they were awakened by screams coming from the building.

Jacuita Purifoy, 37, has two younger sisters and six nieces and nephews who lived in the building. She said she had not been given the list of the deceased and was not sure whether any survived. Their ages range from 1 to the mid-30s.

“Everybody is still in shock,” Purifoy said.

Loved ones, many warmed by blankets, formed a prayer circle nearby. Vanessa Price, 46, said she was a cousin of a family that lived in the building.

“That’s our brothers, sisters, daughters,” she said of the fire victims. “We just got to keep them in prayer.”

Price said it was particularly sad that so many were children. “They didn’t get a chance to experience life,” she said. “It’s a loss people don’t want to wake up to.”

Social media footage showed heavy, black smoke billowing from the home early Wednesday. Debris was visible through windows, and several ladders leaned against the building. The smell of smoke lingered Wednesday afternoon as helicopters circled above and neighbors watched from outside, some using blankets to keep warm amid temperatures of about 35 degrees.

Alice Wright, 80, said she cried in her home before walking three blocks to the scene of the fire.

“I just wanted to see what I could do,” said Wright, a lifelong Philadelphian. “Provide clothes – something.”

The Red Cross said it is providing emergency assistance for a family of five people displaced by the fire.

The blaze was brought under control about 50 minutes after the firefighters arrived, officials said. Officials had not determined the fire’s origin or how smoke detectors failed.

Although Murphy said the blaze was “not necessarily suspicious,” the city’s fire marshal was investigating. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw told reporters that it was “too early to tell” whether the fire would lead to a criminal investigation. District Attorney Larry Krasner said his office was prepared to help if evidence of a criminal act emerged.

The home had a number of working smoke detectors, powered by lithium batteries meant to last 10 years, at its last inspection, Murphy said, but several were not operating at the time of the fire.

About 26 people lived in the rowhouse, Murphy said, with eight on the first floor and 18 in a unit spanning the second and third floors. He said he was unaware of the city’s occupancy limits for that kind of home but noted that the number “is a tremendous amount of people to be living in a duplex.”

The flames traveled through the building unencumbered, Murphy said, feeding off oxygen and the home’s contents. “I’ve been around for 35 years now, and this is probably one of the worst fires I’ve ever been to,” he said.

It was unclear what started the fire.

Robert Cucinotta, a spokesman for the Philadelphia field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Fire and Explosives, directed inquiries to the fire department, but he said that “usually these types of investigations take a day or more to solidify an origin and cause.”

Dinesh Indala, executive vice president of housing operations with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, told reporters that the agency was unaware that about 26 people were living in the duplex. He said that the building’s last inspection was in May and that there were six functioning smoke detectors at the time. Some of the batteries and smoke detectors were replaced during a 2020 inspection, he said.

Kelvin A. Jeremiah, president and chief executive of the housing agency, confirmed in a statement to The Washington Post that “all the smoke detectors were operating properly at that time.”

“This unimaginable loss of life has shaken all of us at PHA. It is too early for us to say more,” Jeremiah said. “Our primary goal right now is to support our residents in any way we can.”

Murphy said he was aware of the front and back doors being the only exit points in the building, saying the rowhouse had an odd configuration. Although the home had been subdivided in the 1950s, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections indicated to the Philadelphia Inquirer and CNN that the building has had no violations.

The house is yards from an elementary and middle school and the Eastern State Penitentiary, a former prison, in a neighborhood that is home to several of the city’s museums.

Wednesday’s fire joins several major home blazes in Philadelphia’s history, including the 1985 MOVE bombing – which started a fire that killed 11 – and an inferno in 1850 that killed 44 in the Old City neighborhood.

The child injured in the blaze was taken to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, while an adult was transported to Temple University Hospital. Hospital officials declined to describe their conditions as of Wednesday afternoon.

On the block where the fire broke out, newcomers coexist with longtime residents who are primarily people of color, said Wayne Brooks, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1993. He said his home’s value has nearly quadrupled since he bought it that year.

“Everybody in this neighborhood gets along,” he said, standing by his porch with a cigar in hand. “It’s a good place to raise kids.”

The tragedy hit close to home for Brooks, who served as a Philadelphia firefighter for 26 years before retiring in 2016. He estimated that a firefighter might see five or six three-story fires like Wednesday’s, but not ones with so many fatalities.

“It’s an anomaly to have so many people die,” he said.

The shock of the fire reverberated throughout the city.

“This punched you in the gut,” Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke told reporters, visibly shaken. “It’s just so tragic. I don’t know what to say.”

Neighbors said the shrieks woke them up early Wednesday.

Bill Richards, who has lived on the block for 24 years, told The Post that he heard a woman yell around 6:45 a.m.: “Oh my God! Oh my God!” By the time he ran outside, said Richards, 74, he saw the smoke pouring out of the building and firefighters “squirting at the flames.” The retired schoolteacher said he remained concerned for one young man he knew who lived in the building, hoping he wasn’t there.

“It’s monumentally hard to wrap your head around such an amount of loss in one event and to have it be so close to where I live,” Richards said, adding that he checked his smoke detectors hours after the fire. “I’m more worried about those families at this point. I don’t know how many of them are going to bounce back quickly.”

His neighbor Kyle Medernach woke up around the same time to the same screams. When he went outside to see what the commotion was about, he said he saw the flames on the roof of the rowhouse. Medernach, a 31-year-old writer who has lived in the neighborhood for six years, said that while the fire could be a wake-up call to many who are uncertain whether their smoke detectors work, he was trying to distract himself Wednesday from a “really heartbreaking” tragedy involving kids he’s seen on his street.

“It’s something you can’t reverse time on,” he said. “It’s shocking to see something like this happen so close to home – and to know that these are faces I’ve seen for years.”

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