What to Know
- At least 12 people, including 8 children, died as flames tore through a Philadelphia rowhome converted into apartments in the city's Fairmount neighborhood Wednesday morning.
- The exact cause of the blaze in the Philadelphia Housing Authority-owned home on North 23rd Street is not yet known. Twenty-six people were living inside the duplex at the time, officials said.
- “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.
Lee la historia en español aquí.
Editor's Note: City officials initially said seven children and six adults were killed in the fire. They later said eight children and four adults died. This story has been updated to reflect that information.
At least 12 people, including eight children, died early Wednesday when a quick-moving fire tore through a Philadelphia rowhome, crowded with 26 people in two apartments owned by the city's public housing authority.
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“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, with tears in his eyes.
The fire began around 6:40 a.m. on the second floor of the rowhome duplex along the 800 block of North 23rd Street, near Ogden Street, in the densely residential Fairmount neighborhood, Philadelphia police and fire officials said.
The house is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, according to city records.
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Two other people were left in critical condition; one of them was a child. However, fire officials warned that they were still investigating and the number of dead could change.
At least eight people were able to escape the burning duplex, Philadelphia Fire Department Deputy Commissioner Craig Murphy said.
A neighbor said he heard screams around 6:30 a.m. and came downstairs to see flames coming out of the building.
"It was just such a shocking moment," he said.
Early Wednesday evening, family members shared photos of the victims with NBC10.
President Joe Biden was briefed about the fire. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden also tweeted about the tragedy.
Christmas Tree May Have Fueled the Blaze
The death toll from the fire is among Philadelphia's worst in memory, and nearly twice as deadly as the 2014 blaze in the southwest section of the city where seven people, including four children, perished.
The city's fire marshal and the federal ATF were investigating the cause for Wednesday's fire. Sources said investigators are looking at how the fire spread so fast -- and the possibility that a Christmas tree went up in flames, fueling the deadly blaze.
A child who ran out of the building told investigators a Christmas tree caught fire before flames spread inside the duplex, multiple sources told NBC10.
"Preliminary information indicates companies arrived at 6:40 a.m. and found heavy fire coming from the second floor of a three-story rowhouse," the Philadelphia Fire Department tweeted. "It took 50 minutes to place the fire under control."
There was heavy fire coming from a kitchen area on the second floor and heading up the open staircase to the third floor, Murphy said. He said there was little to stop the flames from moving.
As firefighters battled the flames, they discovered multiple people dead in the home.
“It was terrible. I’ve been around for 35 years now and this is probably one of the worst fires I have ever been to," Murphy said.
Photos: Neighbors, Firefighters, Officials Grieve After Fire Kills 12 in Philly
18 People Living in One Unit
At least 26 people were residing in the two apartments spread over three floors of the duplex, fire officials said. Eight people escaped from the unit that covers the ground floor and rear of the second floor, Murphy said.
There were 18 people living in the other unit, which included the front of the second floor and the entire third floor.
"That is a tremendous amount of people to be living in a duplex," Murphy said.
Each of the families initially moved into the units in 2011, PHA said.
Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country, and housing insecurity is a huge issue for many. Pennsylvania Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat who represents the area, said many of his constituents find shelter with other families to make ends meet.
“I knew some of those kids -- I used to see them playing 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. They had lived there for a decade, she said, “and some of those kids have lived here as long as us.”
The fire was tied for the sixth-deadliest residential fire in the U.S. since 1980, according to the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association. Neighbors, firefighters and officials were overcome with grief at the scene.
"Losing so many kids, it’s just devastating… keep these babies in your prayers," Kenney said.
Six Smoke Detectors Installed, None Working
The fire appeared to be out by 10 a.m., with ladders leaning against the building near the corner about three hours after the fire began. Firefighters could be seen going in and out of the rowhome, where part of the roof was cut out.
There were six working battery-operated smoke detectors installed in the building, but none were operational at the time of the blaze, firefighters said.
“This unimaginable loss of life has shaken all of us at PHA," PHA President & CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah said in a printed statement. "It is too early for us to say more. The property was last inspected in May 2021, and all the smoke detectors were operating properly at that time."
Jeremiah said any more information on the fire would be coming from the Philadelphia Fire Department and ATF.
Murphy said investigators would make sure the loss of life "wasn't in vain."
The only ways in and out of the homes were front and rear doors, Murphy said.
The apartments are within walking distance of Girard College, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other city institutions.
Between 6:36 a.m. and 6:39 a.m., police radio received 36 911 calls in regards to the fire, city officials said.
"The first call was received at 6:36:28 and was answered immediately. The call taker got the information regarding the location of the fire," a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office wrote. "The call was transferred to fire communications at 6:37:12 and answered on two rings. Fire personnel were dispatched and enroute at 6:38:27. The first Philadelphia Fire Department company arrived on scene at 6:40 a.m."