Philadelphia Rowhouse Fire: What We Know
Twelve people — three sisters and their sons and daughters — were killed in the blaze, which swept through a building owned by the federally funded Philadelphia Housing Authority.
A fire overwhelmed a crowded Philadelphia rowhouse on Wednesday morning, killing three sisters and nine of their sons and daughters in one of the deadliest residential fires in the nation’s recent history.
There were 26 people in the rowhouse, which had been converted into two apartments at the time of the fire, said Craig Murphy, first deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Fire Department. Two people were taken to nearby hospitals, he said.
The fire’s death toll is greater than a Philadelphia house blaze in 2008 that killed seven people and the 1985 police bombing of members of the group MOVE, which killed 11 people and burned down 61 homes in a West Philadelphia neighborhood.
Many details about the fire, including a cause, remain unclear. Here’s what we know.
What happened at the rowhouse?
The Philadelphia Fire Department responded to “heavy fire” from the second floor of a building in the city’s Fairmount neighborhood at about 6:40 a.m. It took firefighters about 50 minutes to get the fire under control, the department said.
Laurie Roma, who lives across the street from the building, said she woke to screams.
“When I looked outside,” Ms. Roma, 44, said, “I saw orange flames coming out of the second-floor windows, and there was a man screaming for help.”
Ms. Roma said that no one answered when she dialed 911, but that firefighters arrived two minutes after her call. A spokesman for the city said 911 had received the first calls about the fire at 6:36 a.m. and fielded dozens of calls after that.
The century-old, three-story brick rowhouse belonged to the federally funded Philadelphia Housing Authority, which bought it in 1967, according to property records. More than 80,000 people in Philadelphia live in its homes, according to the agency.
What caused the fire?
Investigators examining the fire are looking into the possibility that it was caused by a child playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree, according to a warrant application.
The application was filed in state court so police investigators could gain access to the apartment, and officials emphasized that no conclusions had been made. Several agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, are investigating.
“We have all hands on deck because of the magnitude of this fire,” Mr. Murphy said.
What do we know about the victims?
Officials had not provided the victims’ names or ages by Thursday night, but friends of the family have spoken about some of those who were killed.
One of the children who died was Destiny McDonald, who was quieter and more reserved than the others, said Andre Wright, who coached her in basketball.
“To know her was to love her, and a lot of people didn’t really get to know her — she kind of shut herself off from a lot of people,” he said. But for those who she let in, she was a “beacon of light.”
Another victim, Quintien Tate-McDonald, 16, worked a part-time job cleaning up in a nearby schoolyard. “As much as you love all of your kids, he was one of those really memorable kids that you would never forget,” said Kristin Luebbert, who taught him in seventh grade.
Jacuita Purifoy told reporters that the children were her nieces and nephews. One nephew, a 5-year-old, had survived and was in a hospital, she said. “He wants his mom, he wants his dad, he wants his sister, he wants his cousins,” Ms. Purifoy said.
The mayor’s office said that firefighters were able to rescue one child from the rowhouse, but that the child did not survive.
Why were there so many people inside the building?
When the family moved into the apartment in 2011, said Kelvin Jeremiah, president and chief executive of the housing authority, they numbered six.
A decade later, Mr. Jeremiah said, the family had grown to 14, which was the number of people authorized to live there under the current lease. He attributed the fact that there were apparently four more people than that in the apartment at the time of the fire to the holiday season.
“This is the time of year when family gathers,” Mr. Jeremiah said. “We are not going to be critical of families who have suffered this unimaginable loss.”
Were the building’s smoke detectors working?
At least four smoke detectors in the rowhouse did not go off during the fire, said Mr. Murphy of the Fire Department.
He said that four smoke detectors were installed in 2019, and that there was another inspection in 2020. The smoke detectors were last inspected in 2021, according to the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
During the most recent inspection of the B unit of the building on May 5, 2021, Mr. Indala said, six smoke detectors and three carbon monoxide monitors were working. The agency, which inspects its properties annually, replaced smoke detectors in the unit during an inspection in September 2019, he added.
In the last inspection of the A unit on April 23, 2021, there were seven smoke detectors and three carbon monoxide monitors in the apartment and two more were installed, Mr. Indala said.
He said he did not know what caused the smoke detectors to stop working.