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January 18, 2023

One year after deadly fire in Fairmount, Philadelphia honors victims with an exhibit in City Hall

'Angels – A McDonald Family Tribute' includes photos, videos, toys and a painting of all 12 people who perished

Arts & Culture Tributes
Angels – A McDonald Family Tribute Exhibit Provided Image/Albert Lee City of Philadelphia

A new exhibit in City Hall pays tribute to the 12 people who died in the rowhome fire in Fairmount last January. From now until March 31, the display will feature photos, videos, and other memorabilia, as well as a painting by Taqiy Muhammad dedicated to the victims.

Over a year after a deadly fire claimed 12 lives, including nine children, in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, the city has unveiled a new exhibit to honor the victims.

"Angels – A McDonald Family Tribute" will be on display on the second floor of City Hall from Jan. 18 through March 31. The exhibit, presented in collaboration with the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and the Office of the Mayor, will feature photos, videos, toys and books, as well as other family keepsakes in six display cases. "869 Angels," a painting by the artist Taqiy Muhammad which references the family's home address on 23rd Street, will also be displayed.

"Since that horrific day, the entire city continues to mourn for each of the young mothers and children lost. We mourn everything they should have been able to become and experience, and the tremendous pain felt by their families and communities," Mayor Jim Kenney said.

Two surviving immediate family members, Vanessa and Estelle McDonald, collaborated with the city on the project.

"What I would like for everyone to know is that they will be forever missed and loved, and we will continue to let their names and souls live on forever. We haven't lost them to just memories — what we've gained are angels," Estelle said.

On Jan. 5, 2022, a fire in a three-story rowhouse near the corner of North 23rd and Ogden streets broke out. Firefighters reportedly responded to calls about the blaze at 6:38 a.m., finding heavy smoke and heat on all floors of the home.

Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said that eight people lived in the lower unit, and 18 were inside the upper unit as the building burned. 

Rosalee Nicole McDonald, who was 33 years old, and her six children Quintien Tate-McDonald (age 16), Destiny Nicole McDonald (age 15), DeKwan Hameen Robinson (age 8), J'Kwan Tyrone Robinson (age 5), Taniesha Clara Robinson (age 3) and Tiffany Joy Robinson (age 2) all perished in the fire.

Virginia Maria Thomas, a 30-year-old mother, and her three daughters Shaniece Maria Wayne (age 10), Natasha Janiece Wayne (age 8) and Janiyah Vanessa Roberts (age 3) also died.

The twelfth victim was Vanessa McDonald's 18-year-old daughter, Quinsha Vanessa White. 

Angels – A McDonald Family Tribute Exhibit 2Courtesy/City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy

'869 Angels' painted by the artist Taqiy Muhammed, was done in tribute to the 12 people who died in the Fairmount rowhome fire last January. The number 869 refers to the address in the Fairmount neighborhood where the family lived on North 23rd Street.

An investigation following the fire revealed that a 5-year-old boy playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree in the upper unit of the property had started the blaze. Investigators also said that the home did not have working smoke detectors

Last month, legislation requiring better smoke alarms in public housing was signed into law by President Joe Biden. The measure, introduced by Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Madeleine Dean, requires tamper-resistant alarms across the country. 

"When a Philadelphia fire killed 12 people, including nine children, in a public housing unit, I took action with Representative Madeleine Dean to ensure that families are protected from this kind of tragedy in the future," Casey said in a written statement.