PHILADELPHIA—Witnesses recounted seeing flames “shooting out of the windows” and hearing screams for help as a ferocious fire tore through an row house in Philadelphia on Wednesday morning, killing at least 12 members of an extended family, including eight children.
“They were smart, great kids, they were all great kids—the youngest was 1,” Tashia Price, who described herself as a family friend, told The Daily Beast. She added that she believed all of the children who died were under 10, with most of them just “babies.”
“They didn’t even get a chance to experience life,” she added.
Philadelphia Fire Department First Deputy Commissioner Craig Murphy said the fire broke out at around 6:40 a.m. in a three-story row house that had been converted into two overcrowded apartments with no functioning smoke alarms.
“There was nothing slowing that fire down from moving,” he said, calling it one of the worst fires he’s ever attended in his 35-year career.
The building, owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), had four battery-operated smoke detectors installed during a PHA inspection in 2019. The agency installed another two detectors during a 2020 inspection but “none of them operated” during Wednesday’s fire, Murphy said.
At least 26 people were inside at the time of the fire, including eight in a separate unit on the first floor. The other 18 were in the upper duplex, with Murphy calling that "a tremendous amount of people to be living in a duplex.”
Philadelphia does not limit the number of people who are allowed to live in a single unit.
There were only two exits in the house, a front and rear entrance, Murphy said.
Regina Cureton, a PHA resident who lives a few blocks away, said she had sounded the alarm about the number of fire escapes two years ago.
“I was told by PHA I could jump out the window if there’s a fire. They told me that they’re not responsible for my fire escapes,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Asked why so many people were living in the apartments, Price said, “You know how life goes, your sisters and brothers, if they need somewhere to stay, you make it work.”
Eight people managed to escape the fire, including a child and an adult who were hospitalized, Murphy said. Price told The Daily Beast that a five-year-old girl, her father, and a woman whose three adult daughters died in the blaze were among the survivors.
“She survived, she lost her three daughters and her grandchildren. She has one daughter living now,” Price said.
A woman named Linda, who identified herself as an aunt of some of the victims, also told The Daily Beast most of those killed on Wednesday were related.
“The three adults were my nieces, some beautiful, beautiful queens, and the children were my great nieces and nephews,” she told The Daily Beast. “Mostly adults survived. Sunday, we were supposed to have dinner.”
In an interview with KYW-TV, executive vice president of housing operations for PHA, Dinesh Indala, said that the agency was unaware that so many people were living in the building. He said inspections are done annually, and that batteries in two smoke detectors were replaced during an inspection of one of the units in May 2021.
“We are cooperating with fire department and everyone else in the investigation right now,” he added.
PHA president and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah confirmed the May 2021 inspection, adding in a statement, “[T]his unimaginable loss of life has shaken all of us at PHA.”
Neighbors described being rattled awake by screams and billowing smoke. Stuart Rome, a neighbor, told The Daily Beast that his wife smelled smoke at about 6:30 a.m. and ran outside, grabbing whatever blankets and coats she could.
“She saw flames shooting out of the windows,” he said. “One of the neighbors had heard screams and called the fire department. They were here pretty quick.”
He said the building appeared to house a lot of people. “We’ve lived with that home for 30 years, the people there were wonderful, the kids were great, I’m just heartbroken.”
Another neighbor, Bill Richards, told the Inquirer, “About a quarter of seven, I heard a woman yelling ‘Oh my god, oh my god.’”
Murphy said crews arrived to find “heavy fire” coming from the second floor in what appeared to be a kitchen area. It took 50 minutes to get the blaze under control.
By mid-morning, the Fairmount neighborhood was filled with emergency vehicles, victims’ families, and devastated passers-by. A rainstorm overnight left 23rd Street filled with puddles, in stark contrast to the scent of burning in the air.
“It’s a tragedy waiting to happen,” Susan Cosby, a local PHA resident, told The Daily Beast. “[Seven] babies dead, thirteen people shouldn’t be dead, living in PHA.”
The city’s fire marshal and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are conducting an investigation, authorities said.
The tragic death toll nearly doubled that of a devastating 2014 blaze in Philadelphia that claimed seven lives, including four kids.
“This is without a doubt one of the most tragic days in our city’s history, the loss of so many people in such a tragic way,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said. “Losing so many kids is just devastating.”
Harry Siegel contributed to this report.