PHILADELPHIA - 12 people have died following a fire inside of a Philadelphia Housing Authority rowhome that officials say had no working smoke detectors. Eight children lost their lives in the Wednesday morning blaze — the city's deadliest single fire in more than a century.
While the cause of the fire remains under investigation, sources tell FOX 29 they are looking into whether or not a Christmas tree that caught fire may have been the cause.
Firefighters responded to the three-story rowhome at 869 North 23rd Street in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood around 6:40 a.m. Wednesday. When firefighters responded to the scene they found heavy flames and smoke coming from the second floor of the home.
Fire officials say that companies began working to put out the fire, which they got under control in less than an hour. During the firefight, crews discovered that there were multiple fatalities.
Wednesday night, authorities confirmed that the fire claimed the lives of 12 people. Eight children and four adults were found dead, officials said.
Fire officials initially said 13 people died, seven of them children, but those figures were updated Wednesday evening.
Family members say the victims ranged in age from 33-year-old to 1-year-old. They also say two of the victims were sisters, ages 33 and 30, and that both of them were mothers. The sisters each had multiple children, but it's unclear if all of them were home at the time of the fire or how many of them died.
Two other victims, including a child, were taken to area hospitals and listed in critical, but stable condition. Several others were able to safely evacuate the home, according to fire officials.
"This is without a doubt one of the most tragic days in our city's history," Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday morning, as he called for prayers. "Losing so many kids is just devastating."
The property is owned, operated, and inspected by the Philadelphia Housing Authority and had been split into two units and officials say 26 people were living in the building.
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, Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said.
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Philadelphia Housing Authority officials tell FOX 29 the family lived at the address since 2011, beginning their time in the home with six people. Their family expanded, but officials said they did not ask for a larger house.
When asked if 26 people was an appropriate number to be living in that particular property, Philadelphia Housing Authority officials replied that it was not. 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," Philadelphia Mayor Jim 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."
Investigators say the home was equipped with four smoke detectors and none of them were operational. 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. Officials said the last inspection was in May 2021 and the smoke detectors were working at that time.
SKYFOX was over the scene of the deadly fire later Wednesday morning.
Meanwhile, many have questioned the absence of a fire escape that could have provided an additional escape route for the victims trapped inside. The Department of Licensing and Inspection (L&I) said a two-family, three-story rowhome is not required to have a fire escape and claim the front door as its only exit.
Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said during a briefing late Wednesday morning that only two potential exits could be identified in the building due to its configuration.
Fire officials say they are working with the Fire Marshal's Office and ATF in order to determine the cause of the fire.
"We plan on making sure that this tremendous loss of life did not happen in vain," said Deputy Fire Commissioner Murphy.
Murphy also called the fire one of the worst he's ever responded to in his 35 years on the job.
"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.
During Wednesday morning's press conference at the scene, city and fire officials were asked about potential issues regarding 911 calls and an inability to get through to dispatchers.
City officials clarified in their updated Wednesday night that they received 36 911 calls regarding the fire between 6:36 a.m. and 6:39 a.m. Wednesday morning. They say the first call at 6:36 was answered immediately, and the call-taker got information on the fire's location and transferred the call to fire communications less than a minute later. Fire personnel were dispatched at 6:38 a.m. and arrived on scene two minutes later.
Residents who live nearby tell FOX 29 that they would often see children playing outside of the property and that there was a lot of activity around the home.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, though Deputy Commissioner Murphy said that it is 'not necessarily' considered suspicious at this time. The Philadelphia Fire Department and Fire Marshal's Office are leading the investigation.
A GoFundMe Page has been established "to assist the parents/grandparents with final arrangements." The online fundraiser says leftover donations will go to resources for the two survivors.
The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia has also set up a fund to provide assistance to the families impacted by the fire. Anyone who wishes to contribute can do so here.
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