January 05, 2022
Twelve people died in a fire inside a rowhome in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia on Wednesday morning; eight of the victims were children. At least two other people were injured.
City officials initially reported 13 victims – six adults and seven children – during a press briefing late Wednesday morning. But they noted that figure was "dynamic" due ongoing recovery operations and subject to change.
There were a total of six, battery-operated, smoke detectors inside the two apartments in the property, but none of them were operational, Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said.
The fire happened at 869 N. 23rd St., near the corner of North 23rd and Ogden streets. Firefighters were called to the scene at 6:38 a.m. Crews found flames spewing from the second floor of the three-story rowhouse.
Upon entering, firefighters found heavy smoke, heat and low visibility on all levels of the house, city officials said Wednesday night. They made an "aggressive attack," raising multiple ladders to the exterior and roof, and conducted search-and-rescue efforts throughout the interior.
Firefighters rescued one child from the fire, but the child did not survive.
Heavy fire was concentrated around a kitchen on the second floor and an open stairwell to the third floor, Murphy said at the morning press briefing.
"There was nothing slowing that fire down," Murphy said. "That fire was moving."
Property records show the rowhouse was built around 1920, and it is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. There are two apartments in the building: One occupies the first floor and the rear section of the second floor, the other includes the front section of the second floor and the third floor.
Murphy said eight residents lived in the lower unit and 18 people were inside the upper unit.
Mayor Jim Kenney urged people against making judgments on the number of people living in the house.
"You don't know the circumstances of each and every family," Kenney said. "Maybe there were relatives or people that needed to be sheltered. Obviously, the tragedy happened and we all mourn for it. But we can't make judgment on the number of people living in the house, because sometimes people just need to be indoors."
Eight people fled the building on their own after it caught fire, Murphy said. An injured child was transported to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and an adult was taken to Temple University Hospital.
The ages of the children who were killed are unknown at this time.
Four smoke detectors were installed during a PHA inspection of the building in 2019, Murphy said. Two more detectors were installed during an inspection in 2020, but none of them were operational at the time of the fire, he said.
PHA President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah said in an emailed statement Wednesday that all of the smoke detectors were operational when the building was inspected in the spring.
"This unimaginable loss of life has shaken all of us at PHA. It is too early for us to say more," Jeremiah said. "The property was last inspected in May 2021, and all the smoke detectors were operating properly at that time. The Fire Department, ATF and others are handling the investigation. Any information on the cause will come through them. Our primary goal right now is to support our residents in any way we can."
It took firefighters 50 minutes to get the blaze under control. Investigators from the fire department, PHA, Philadelphia Department of Licenses & Inspections and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene Wednesday. By early afternoon, the cause of the fire and where it started had not determined..
Kyle Medernach, who lives on the block, said he woke up this morning to the fire.
"It was a shocking moment. Everybody here in the street was out watching first thing in the morning," he said.
Medernach did not personally know the people who lived in the house, but he often saw them outside.
"It's just sad, what happened," he said, adding his heart goes out to the families. "More than anything else, that's what I'm thinking about right now. The victims, the families."
"It was terrible," Murphy said. "I've been around for 35 years and this is probably one of the worst fires I've ever been to. ...We plan on making sure that this tremendous loss of life did not happen in vain."
Kenney, distraught by what had happened, described the fire as one of Philadelphia's most tragic days.
"The loss of so many people, it's such a tragic event," Kenney said. "Please keep all these folks, and especially these children, in your prayers. Losing so many kids is just devastating."
Staff writers John Kopp and Michael Tanenbaum contributed to this article. This story is developing. Please check back for more updates.