‘I feel broken’: 8 children among 12 people killed in Fairmount rowhouse fire

Police confer at the scene of a fire on North 23rd Street

Police confer at the scene of a fire on North 23rd Street that killed 12 people, eight of them children. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia officials are investigating a fatal fire in Fairmount, which claimed the lives of at least 12 people, including eight children.

The fire was reported shortly after 6 a.m. Wednesday morning on the 800 block of North 23rd Street. The Fire Marshal’s office is working to determine the cause of the fire, which was brought under control at 7:31 a.m.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority owns the rowhome, which had been converted into two apartments. Philadelphia Fire Department officials said a heavy fire came from the second floor. The PHA duplex contained four smoke alarms but none were operating at the time of the fire, officials said.

Women weep near the scene of a house fire
Women weep near the scene of a house fire that killed 12 people, eight of them children, on North 23rd Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
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“I’ve been around for 35 years now, and this is probably one of the worst fires I’ve ever been to,” Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said at the scene Wednesday morning. “I don’t have the words for how we’re feeling right now.”

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

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Isaiah Brown of Frankford was asleep when his mother turned on the news and woke him. “They died,” he recalled her saying.

The 18-year-old knew five of the victims, who were his cousins.

“They’re babies, man. Young children. They didn’t even get to experience life,” Brown said. He recalled one victim who was recently on the phone with his younger brother, saying what he wanted to be in life.

“I feel broken,” Brown said. “I’m hurt right now.”

“I feel mad, helpless,” said Reggie Johnson, whose mother’s cousin died, along with her children, in the fire. “I just want to help because I’m a helper … and I can’t help my own family.”

City Council President Darrell Clarke, who represents the area, said the tragic death of so many people in his district hit him like a “punch in the gut.”

“To say [I’m] at a loss for words is an understatement,” he said.

Eight people made it out of the building, Deputy Commissioner Murphy said. Another two were taken to hospitals for medical care, including a child who was taken to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Firefighters leave the scene of a fire
Firefighters leave the scene of a fire on North 23rd Street that killed eight children. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

According to city officials, PHA installed four smoke detectors in the duplex in 2019. The housing authority installed additional two smoke detectors in 2020 during another inspection. The rowhouse didn’t have any active violations, investigations, or permits, according to city Licenses & Inspections records.

At least 26 people were living in the three-story rowhouse, Murphy said. He indicated 18 people lived between the second and third floors. “That is a tremendous number of people in a building,” he said. Kenney cautioned that “we can’t pass judgment,” on the occupants’ living situation, adding that there may have been residents who needed to be sheltered.

A woman is consoled at the corner of 23rd and Poplar streets
A woman is consoled at the corner of 23rd and Poplar streets near the scene of a rowhouse fire that killed eight children. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia faces a dire affordable housing shortage and long before the pandemic, the city struggled to provide safe and legal housing for many vulnerable families.

District Attorney Larry Krasner in a statement offered his condolences following the “unfathomable occurrence,” adding that health and public safety issues tied to housing stability are “all too familiar.”

The city, Krasner said, “owes it to the victims, the survivors, and to all Philadelphians to conduct a thorough investigation into this travesty, so that we can make sure it never happens again.”

Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management, along with the Red Cross and Salvation Army, has opened a Friends and Relatives Center at Bache-Martin Elementary School to assist family and friends affected by the fire.

The city also pointed to the Philly HopeLine, a free helpline staffed by clinicians from Uplift Center for Grieving Children, as a supportive resource for Philadelphia students and their families. Residents can call or text 1-833-PHL-HOPE from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday.

Other city-run resources include the Medical Examiner’s Office free bereavement support (215-685-7402) and Healthy Minds Philly, whose free mental health resources include crisis and grief support.

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