Fire broke through a duplex home early Wednesday in Philadelphia, killing 13 people, including seven children, firefighters said. At least two people were sent to hospitals, and officials warned that the number could rise as firefighters searched the townhouse where 26 people had been staying.
The four smoke alarms in the building, which were public housing, do not appear to have worked, the fire department said.
The cause of the fire was not determined, but officials shaken by the death toll – apparently the highest in a single fire in the city for at least a century – promised to get to the bottom.
“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.
City and fire authorities did not release the names or ages of those killed in the fire, which started before 6 p.m. 06.30 local time in a residential area of the city’s Fairmount neighborhood northwest of downtown and home to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its famous “Rocky step.”
Relatives and friends of the home’s residents gathered at a nearby elementary school to wait for news, some wrapped in Salvation Army blankets, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Several friends of the children came by in hopes of information after their text messages and calls were not answered.
‘Keep these babies in your prayers’
“It was awful. I’ve been around for 35 years now, and this is probably one of the worst fires I’ve ever been to,” Craig Murphy, first deputy fire commissioner, told a news conference.
“Losing so many children is just devastating,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said. “Keep these babies in your prayers.”
First Lady Jill Biden, who, along with U.S. President Joe Biden, has deep ties to the Philadelphia area, tweeted, “My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the victims of the tragic Philadelphia fire.”
My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the victims of the tragic Philadelphia fire.
Crews responded around 6 p.m. 6:40 a.m. and then flames shoot from second-floor front windows in an area believed to be a kitchen, Murphy said.
The strange configuration of the building – originally a single-family house that had been divided into two apartments – made it difficult to navigate, he said. Crews brought it under control in less than an hour, he said.
There were 18 people living in the apartment upstairs on the second and third floors, and eight lived in the apartment downstairs, which included the first floor and part of the second floor, Murphy said.
Murphy noted that 26 were a large number of people who were to occupy a duplex, but a spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Licensing and Inspections said the city does not limit the number of family members who can live in a single unit. And the mayor said people should withhold judgment.
“You do not know the circumstances of every single family, and perhaps there were relatives and family who needed shelter,” Kenney said. “Obviously the tragedy happened and we all mourn it. But we can not judge by the number of people living in the house, because sometimes people just have to be indoors.”
The alarms had been inspected annually and at least two had been replaced by 2020, with batteries replaced in the others at the time, Philadelphia Housing Authority officials said, adding that the last inspection was in May 2021.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” said Andrea Duszenczuk, 68, whose family has long owned a home in the neighborhood and who regularly walks her dog past the burned-out home. “Many of these homes have old wires – these are probably 125 years old. Who knows what’s behind the walls.”