Fairmount rowhouse fire that killed 12 began when a Christmas tree ignited

Officials gather by a response vehicle

Officials gather by a response vehicle near the scene of Wednesday's deadly fire in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Investigators believe the devastating Fairmount rowhouse fire that killed 12 people last week began with the ignition of a Christmas tree.

Philadelphia officials announced their findings of a preliminary investigation into the blaze at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said officials believe with near-certainty that the tree was ignited by a lighter located nearby.

When a detective interviewed a child who survived the fire at the hospital, he said he was playing with an orange cigarette lighter and accidentally set the tree on fire, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

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As investigators piece together what led up to the Jan. 5 fire, Thiel said “we are left with the words of that traumatized 5-year-old child to help us understand how the lighter and tree came together with tragic consequences.”

Thiel said the 5-year-old was the only survivor from the second floor, where the fire began. Nine children were among the 12 people killed. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Medical Examiner’s Office on Tuesday identified the victims:

Dekwan Robinson, 8
Destiny McDonald, 15
Janiyah Roberts, 4
J’Kwan Robinson, 5
Natasha Wayne, 7
Quientien Tate-McDonald, 16
Quinsha White, 18
Rosalee McDonald, 33
Shaniece Wayne, 10
Taniesha Robinson, 3
Tiffany Robinson, 2
Virginia Thomas, 30

No fire extinguishers or working smoke alarms

The three-story rowhouse on North 23rd Street, owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, had battery-powered smoke alarms, no sprinkler system, no fire escape, and no fire extinguisher. Newer PHA properties have hard-wired smoke detectors, rather than battery-operated ones, per PHA president and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah. Newer highrises also have sprinkler systems.

Philadelphia code does not mandate fire escapes in any city properties, said L&I spokesperson Karen Guss. City code also doesn’t require fire extinguishers in buildings with one or two residential units.

At least 26 people were living in the rowhouse, with 18 living between the second and third floors.

Philadelphia law doesn’t limit the number of people who can occupy a home after a judge determined such limitations violated residents’ rights.

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Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday again cautioned people to not pass judgment regarding overcrowding and occupancy limits. “It’s cold and people are outdoors and they’re struggling. Relatives take people in. That’s what relatives do,” Kenney said, speaking to the commonality of intergenerational households.

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.

PHA owns thousands of other rowhomes like the one that burned on North 23rd Street. Some 4,000 families live in “scatter site” homes owned by the housing authority, according to PHA. Last week’s tragedy indicates more support is needed, advocates say.

“While the conditions [of public housing] are deteriorating nationally, our families wait, and wait, and wait,” Jeremiah said following the fire. “They can wait no more. It has become a question of life and death for too many families, and this unfortunate, unimaginable tragedy highlights that.”

The Philadelphia Fire Department has responded to 50 severe working fires since New Year’s Eve, Thiel said. That includes the fatal Fairmount fire, the city’s deadliest in at least a century.

“Fire is everyone’s fight,” Thiel emphasized. “Have smoke alarms. Test your fire alarms. Close before you doze.”

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