Investigators look at Christmas tree as cause of deadly Fairmount fire

A passer-by looks over the barricade on the street of Wednesday's deadly fire

A passer-by looks over the barricade on the street of Wednesday's deadly fire in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

An early morning fire on Wednesday tore through a Fairmount rowhouse, claiming the lives of 12 people. The tragedy marked the city’s deadliest single fire in at least a century, with eight children among those who lost their lives.

The three-story North 23rd Street rowhouse, owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority and divided into two apartments, was home to 26 people at the time the fire broke out.

Mayor Jim Kenney, speaking from the scene of the fire, called Wednesday “without a doubt one of the most tragic days in our city’s history.”

Officials pass flowers and other items left in memory of victims of a fatal fire
Officials pass flowers and other items left in memory of victims of a fatal fire as they enter the area near the scene of the Jan. 5, 2022, deadly fire in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia.Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Here’s what we know about the Fairmount fire, and what we don’t:

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What do we know about the victims?

Authorities have yet to identify those killed in the blaze, which broke out before 6:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Officials initially indicated that 13 people were killed, seven of them children, but updated those figures late Wednesday. Eight children and four adults were ultimately found dead.

Qaadira and Jacuita Purifoy told WHYY News partner 6abc they lost three sisters and their eight children.

“I work with children, so to know that my nieces and nephews are not here, it’s gonna be really hard for me to work with kids again,” said Qaadira Purifoy. “I never thought this would happen.”

The Purifoys identified one of the victims as 32-year-old Virginia Thomas. A second sister, identified as Rosalee McDonald, also died, along with her six children.

Isaiah Brown, 18, knew several of the victims, who were his cousins.

“They’re babies, man. Young children. They didn’t even get to experience life,” Brown said.

Officials initially indicated that 13 people were killed, seven of them children, but updated those figures late Wednesday. Eight children and four adults were ultimately found dead.

At least two people, one adult and one child, were hospitalized in critical but stable condition, officials said Wednesday. Eight people managed to escape the building.

Sean Rowland lived on 23rd Street with the victims of the fire for several years. He didn’t know them well, but would occasionally see them.

“They were very nice, very cordial people who, you know, you could tell they cared about each other,” he said.

Rowland would often say hello to one of the young girls.

“It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen, and to know they’re gone just breaks my heart,” he said.

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Marty Edwards, of West Philly, did not know the families, but came to the street to bring heart-shaped balloons and white teddy bears, and to show his respect.

“Just to let everybody know, you know, we love them,” he said, choking back tears.

Marty Edwards holds up a teddy bear and balloons
Marty Edwards of West Philly brought balloons and teddy bears to honor the victims of the fire, especially the children. (Sophia Schmidt/WHYY)

Edwards said he was thinking especially of the children who died in the fire.

“I mean, it’s crazy,” he said. “It shouldn’t happen like this. Too much, our skin color is just dying for no reason.”

Edwards wants to see agencies like the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which owns the building, held accountable.

“It wasn’t [the residents’] fault,” he said. “I think that the housing authority, they shoulda done a thorougher check, than what they did.”

Edwards encouraged other Philadelphians to find ways to help survivors of the fire and the victims’ families.

“A lot of people should step up,” he said.

What happens now?

Investigators are working to determine the cause of the fire. Fire officials in a Thursday afternoon press conference would not provide further details due to the ongoing investigation. Philadelphia Police Department officials said on Wednesday they could not yet say whether the deaths may be deemed homicides or inspire a criminal investigation.

Sources told WHYY News partner 6abc that a Christmas tree may have ignited inside the rowhouse and started the deadly fire. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office confirmed that investigators on Wednesday filed a search warrant application in Common Plea Court seeking access to the apartment building. The warrant contained information indicating a child age 5 or younger was playing with a lighter and lit the tree on fire, as first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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. PHA last inspected the homes in May 2021, and all six smoke detectors were operating properly at the time, PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah said. By Wednesday, none of the smoke detectors were operating.

The rowhouse didn’t have any active violations, investigations, or permits, according to city Licenses & Inspections records. The home contained no fire escapes, a longtime concern of neighbors who said that many of the nearby houses operated as triplexes. Philadelphia code does not mandate fire escapes in any city properties, said L&I spokesperson Karen Guss.

Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said Thursday it wasn’t hard to get people out of the building — that firefighters got people out quickly. The problem was the strength of the fire, particularly in the kitchen area located in the front of the second floor.

Women weep near the scene of a house fire
Women weep near the scene of a house fire that killed 13 people, seven of them children, on North 23rd Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Murphy also said there was nothing to slow down the fire, and that there were only two exits — the front door and a back door.

It is not yet clear if the 26 people sleeping in the two units lived there permanently. PHA officials on Thursday said 20 residents were accounted for in lease agreements, with 14 authorized to live in the unit where the fire occurred.

Jeremiah echoed comments made by the mayor, who cautioned that “we can’t pass judgment” on the occupants’ living situation.

“Let me be very clear. This is not unique to Philadelphia … We have intergenerational families,” Jeremiah explained, adding that he himself grew up in a unit with 16 people.

The Philadelphia Code does not limit the number of people who can occupy a home, though PHA does typically place limits on occupancy for its rentals.

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. Wednesday’s tragedy indicates more support is needed, advocates say.

Right now, Jeremiah said the agency was focused on the fire’s victims.

“Obviously, our hearts are bleeding right now and we’re really sorry and saddened by this incredible, unimaginable tragedy,” he said. “Our primary objective, as it was yesterday as it is today, and the days to come would be to stand firmly in support of our families who are suffering.”

Where can I turn to for help?

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.

People pray near the scene of a deadly rowhouse fire
People pray near the scene of a deadly rowhouse fire, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

How can I help?

WHYY’s Billy Penn is keeping track of ways to offer help to those affected by the Fairmount rowhouse fire, whether through city-affiliated efforts or local mutual aid organizations.

Among those collecting donations is Children First. The nonprofit, which is dedicated to helping Philly kids, is pledging 100% of proceeds toward the families of the victims through an EveryAction fund.

Community activist Anton Moore, of Unity in the Community, is also pitching in to help. Moore is collecting supplies, including clothing and shoes for five people.

WHYY News’ Aaron Moselle contributed reporting.

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