March 15, 2023
Surviving family members of the women and children who died in an apartment fire in Fairmount last January are filing a lawsuit against the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
The plaintiffs allege that PHA knew the home was overcrowded and a safety hazard, a press release from attorney Thomas Kline says.
The lawsuit also names the California-based company that sells Techno Torch lighters as a defendant. The blaze was sparked when a five-year-old boy lit a Christmas tree inside the rowhome on fire with a Techno Torch product. The plaintiffs allege that the lighter lacked safety features that would prevent a young child from using it.
Kline represents the family of Rosalee McDonald, Destiny McDonald, Quintien Tate-McDonald, Janiyah Roberts and Quinsha White. He said the family of three other victims is also preparing a lawsuit.
On Jan. 5, 2022, at around 6:30 a.m., a fire spread throughout the building on the 800 block of North 23rd Street, originating on the top floor. The home was divided into two apartment units across three floors: one unit across the bottom floor and part of the second floor and another across the third floor and part of the second. Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said that eight people lived in the lower unit, and 14 shared the other.
While the young boy who ignited the Christmas tree escaped the building, 12 people, including nine children, died. They all lived on the top floors.
"This terrible tragedy resulting in precious loss of life could and should have been avoided. After a lengthy ATF investigation, ATF report, and our own independent investigation, we are now prepared to move forward, seeking not only compensation but accountability," Kline said.
According to Kline, the property failed safety inspections in 2015 and 2017, and PHA failed to ensure the home was equipped to handle an emergency. The apartment lacked a fire escape, fire extinguishers and tamper-proof smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
PHA said they had not received the complaint and are not at liberty to discuss pending litigation.
"The property was last inspected in May 2021, and all the smoke detectors were operating properly at that time," PHA President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah said days after the fire.
Fire investigators found that most of the apartment unit's smoke alarms were in a drawer inoperable, while two others did not have batteries.
In the aftermath of the fire, President Joe Biden signed legislation mandating better smoke alarms in public housing. Introduced by Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Madeleine Dean, the law requires tamper-resistant smoke alarms to be installed on each level and near each sleeping unit of any dwelling operated by a public housing agency.
In Philadelphia, residents can request new smoke alarms for their homes from the fire department through Philly311.