Philadelphia fire: Seven children among up to 13 dead in devastating row house blaze

Neighbour says they ‘woke up to blood-curdling screams’

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Wednesday 05 January 2022 17:56
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13 dead, including 7 children, following Fairmount row home fire

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As many as 13 people, including seven children, are feared dead after a fire in a Philadelphia row house as at least two others remain in critical condition.

An adult and a child were taken to hospital after firefighters were called to the scene at 6.38am to battle a heavy fire in a three-story row house in Fairmount in central Philadelphia. When firefighters arrived, flames were coming out of the second floor of the building and they worked for 50 minutes to regain control of the blaze.

A 36-year-old man was taken to hospital with second-degree burns to his legs, according to ABC6. His condition is reportedly serious but stable.

Speaking to reporters, deputy Philadelphia fire commissioner Craig Murphy said the fire was “one of the worst fires I’ve ever been to” during his 35 years of service.

Mr Murphy added that eight people managed to “self-evacuate” from the building. “There were four smoke detectors in that building and none of them operated,” he said.

He added the number of victims “is dynamic because there’s still an ongoing recovery effort”.

Philadelphia firefighters clear debris from the scene of a deadly row house fire, Wednesday 5 January, in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia

Firefighters and police work at the scene

The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) owns the home and Mr Murphy said they carried out inspections in 2019 and 2020. They installed four smoke detectors in 2019 and another two in 2020, for a total of six working smoke detectors at that time, according to the PHA.

Neighbor reacts to fatal fire in Fairmount

“We’re getting reports that eight people lived in the first-floor unit and this number is very dynamic,” Mr Murphy said, adding that the first unit also included half the second floor. He went on to say that 18 people lived on the second and third floors of the row house.

Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, right, is seen after he talked with fire and police officials

Kenney speaks to the media

“That is a tremendous amount of people to be living in a duplex,” he said.

Mr Murphy said the smoke detectors had been running on ten-year lithium batteries.

“In all honesty, it really wasn’t difficult to get people out. They got people out very quickly,” he said about the rescue effort.

Philadelphia fire department's Craig Murphy speaks during a news conference

Firefighters work at the scene

When asked why so many people died, Mr Murphy noted that there was “heavy fire” in the kitchen area at the front of the second floor and that there was an “open stairwell to the third floor”.

There was “nothing slowing that fire down from moving,” he said. He added that the blaze isn’t “necessarily considered suspicious, but we have all hands on deck because of the magnitude of this fire”.

Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor Jim Kenney, the son of a firefighter, told reporters that his father “would basically lock himself in his bedroom for a couple of days” after seeing children lose their lives.

“My mother would say ‘just don’t go near the door because he’s grieving’,” he added.

Bystanders watch as the fire department works at the scene

The fire department works at the scene

Concerning the high number of people living in the house, Mr Kenney said that “sometimes it’s better for people to be indoors than on the street”.

“Maybe there were relatives or people that needed to be sheltered,” he added. “We can’t make a judgment on the number of people living in the house because sometimes people just need to be indoors.”

Police department spokesperson Eric McLaurin said the house had been converted into two apartments.

“You just pray for all involved,” Mr McLaurin said, according to The New York Times. “It’s a bad situation.”

A neighbour from across the street said they “woke up to blood-curdling screams”, according to Fox 29.

“Let me painfully clear that we’re in the process of investigating this to the highest level that we can,” Mr Murphy said. “We’re incorporating all of our resources, both citywide – the Office of Emergency Management, Pico the gas company – all our partner agencies are involved in finding out as much as we can about this fire.”

“Other than that, we are having our fire marshal investigate this. And right now that’s all the information that we have,” he added.

“This is without a doubt one of the most tragic days in our city’s history, the loss of so many people in such a tragic way,” Mr Kenney said at the press conference. “Losing so many kids is just devastating.”

“We plan on making sure that this tremendous loss of life did not happen in vain,” Mr Murphy said.

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