PHILADELPHIA – A dozen people were killed, including eight children, in a fire in an apartment building Wednesday morning in what city officials called a “huge loss of human life.”
A few hours after the fire, the Philadelphia Fire Department warned that the death toll could change as the building was secured and searched. On Wednesday night, the department lowered its death report to 12 from an initial report of 13.
The fire is among the city’s most deadly ever, and the cause has not yet been determined. Officials promised to continue the investigation.
When the building burned, eight people were able to escape. A child and another person were also taken to a hospital for treatment, Philadelphia Fire Department First Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said at a news conference.
In a procession of seven police vehicles, including four vans, the bodies of the victims were removed from the burnt-out building on Wednesday night.
The building was owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the nation’s fourth-largest public housing agency, and had been converted from a large townhouse into two apartments, Officer Miguel Torres of the Philadelphia Police Department told USA TODAY.
“I’ve been around for 35 years now and this is probably one of the worst fires I’ve ever been to,” Murphy said.
Philadelphia firefighters responded around 6 p.m. 6:40 and found “heavy fire” on the second floor of a three-story townhouse. They entered the building and found thick smoke, heat and limited visibility on each floor. Firefighters erected ladders and sprayed water on the fire so they could enter the building and rescue a child. Another child found by crews did not survive, the department said.
It took about 50 minutes to control the fire.
Rebecca Miller, who lives nearby, stepped outside around 7 a.m. and could see smoke and fire trucks. She said she also heard what “sounded like an adult woman screaming.”
Smoke detectors in the building were battery-powered with 10-year-old lithium batteries, but “none of them worked,” Murphy said.
The building was last inspected in May 2021, and smoke detectors were working properly at the time, Philadelphia Housing Authority President Kelvin Jeremiah said in a statement on Facebook.
“This unimaginable loss of life has shaken us all at PHA. It’s too early for us to say more,” Jeremiah said.
At least 18 people lived in the upper apartment, which included the third floor and part of the second, and eight people lived in the lower unit, which included the first floor and the second part of the second, Murphy said. The deputy fire commissioner could not say whether it was more than what would be allowed, but called it “a huge amount of people living in a duplex”.
Murphy said the fire department would investigate the cause of the fire. Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also present. Murphy said the fire “was not necessarily considered suspicious” but that the investigation would be “all hands on deck.”
“We plan to ensure that this enormous loss of human life did not happen in vain,” he said.
Early Wednesday, a couple of people gathered in the Fairmount neighborhood on a nearby corner. They were shocked, angry and sad.
“I knew some of those kids – I used to see them play on the corner,” said Dannie McGuire, 34, fighting back tears as she and Martin Burgert, 35, stood in the doorway of a home around the corner.
“I can not imagine how more people could not get out – jump out of a window,” she said.
Longtime Fairmount resident Ronald Umbrey remembered seeing children play around the residence. He said people moved in and out quite often and that the home “just did not look safe for me.”
“I lived here for 25 years and have never seen such a fire. I did not know anyone who lived there personally, but every time someone died in a fire, it had to be bad,” Umbrey said.
Avery McDonald, a nursing student at Temple University, could not believe in “the destruction and loss of human life.”
“I felt a little helpless,” she said. “But I do not know what could have been done to save those people.”
Aerial footage from WPVI-TV showed that the top two floors of the building near the corner of an intersection had burned out and black near the windows.
Jasmine Stokes said she heard a commotion in the morning and a neighbor told her what happened later.
“It was a big place, and it’s a shame kids lost their lives,” Stokes said. “I wonder if it could have been prevented in some way.”
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued a statement on Twitter saying he was “devastated” by the fire.
“My heart goes out to the loved ones who are left to cope with this heartbreaking loss of life,” he said. “Thanks to the brave first aiders who got the fire under control.”
Mayor Jim Kenney, whose father was a firefighter, called the fire “one of the most tragic days in our city’s history.”
“Losing so many children is just devastating.”
Contributor: Associated Press