PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Investigators are investigating whether a 5-year-old playing with a lighter set a Christmas tree on fire, killing 12 family members in Philadelphia, officials revealed Thursday.
That disclosure was included in a search warrant application as city and federal investigators sought to determine the cause of the fire. city’s deadliest in more than a century, which took the lives of three sisters and several of their children early Wednesday.
District Attorney Larry Krasner’s spokesman, Jane Roh, confirmed the contents of the search warrant, first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Fire officials provided few details at an afternoon news briefing, refusing to say how many people survived the fire or speculating on a possible cause, adding that the scene of the fire was complicated. Officials also did not say where the fire started, saying it was part of the investigation.
“I know we will be able to provide a specific origin and cause for this fire and provide some answers to loved ones and, indeed, the city,” said Matthew Varisco, who leads the Philadelphia branch of the Federal Bureau. of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives.
ATF experts and other investigators took photographs and searched through a three-story brick duplex owned by the city’s public housing agency and the state’s largest landowner, the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
In a statement on Thursday night’s vigil, relatives said their family head had lost three daughters and nine grandchildren in the fire. The daughters have been identified as Rosalie Macdonald, Virginia Thomas and Quinsha White. There were two survivors, the family said. Temple University Hospital said one was in stable condition.
In 2021, there were 14 people living in an upstairs four-bedroom apartment, according to Calvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of the Housing Authority. He said six members of the family had moved there a decade ago and since then the family has grown significantly, which has eight children.
Jeremiah, answering questions from reporters whether the house was big enough for so many people, said the PHA “doesn’t evict people because they have children.”
“It was an intact family that chose to be together. We do not throw out our family members… who may not have other suitable options of accommodation,” he said.
Jeremiah, who sometimes struggled to keep his cool, said officers had contacted both apartments to help surviving family members find new homes.
“We are all shaken up at the PHA,” he said.
The fire department had earlier said that none of the building’s four smoke alarms were working. But housing authority officials said on Thursday that the building actually had 13 tamper-resistant, 10-year detectors, all of which were operational during the last inspection in May 2021.
The city’s fire marshal, Deputy Chief Dennis Marrigan, said the building is a “very, very sophisticated scene, it’s a very painful scene, and it’s very complicated. It’s a very complicated investigation.”
He declined to comment on the possibility that the flames had spread from the Christmas tree.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, a non-profit safety group, fires involving Christmas trees are more likely to be fatal than other types of house fires. The group said Christmas trees cause about 160 fires per year, causing two deaths annually and causing $10 million in property damage.
A live tree that has dried up can be swallowed whole in 15 or 20 seconds.
“If these trees are drying up they could be very, very big, very fast,” said Isaac Leventon, a fire research scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “At the end of the day, a dry tree can represent 10 or 20 pounds of wood.”
Officials did not disclose the names or ages of those killed in the fire, which began around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Officials said eight children and four adults were among the dead.
US Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge offered condolences on Twitter, saying HUD is in contact with city leaders and “ready to support the community in any way they can.” According to Marrigan, HUD investigators were in town on Thursday.
Wednesday’s fire was the deadliest in a US residential apartment building since 2017, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association, when 13 people died in an apartment in New York City’s Bronx neighborhood. The fire started when a 3-year-old child was playing with the stove.
Prior to this, in 1982, the worst fire in an apartment building was in Tennessee. NEPA figures show that sixteen people died in that fire.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Schaffner in New York and AP photographer Matt Rourke in Philadelphia contributed to this story.