PHILADELPHIA (AP) – A fire broke out at a duplex home in Philadelphia early Wednesday, killing 13 people, including seven children, fire officials said. At least two people were sent to hospitals, and officials warned that the death toll could rise as firefighters searched the row-home where 26 people were staying.
Fire officials said four smoke alarms in the building, which was a public residence, were not working. 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 in at least a century – vowed to get to the bottom of it.
“I knew some of those kids—I used to watch them play on the corner,” said 34-year-old Danny McGuire, tearfully, as he and 35-year-old Martin Berger stood at the entrance of a house around the corner.
“I can’t imagine how more people couldn’t get out—jumping out of a window,” she said.
Officials did not reveal the names or ages of those killed in the fire, which began before 6:30 a.m. Downtown and home to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its famous “Rocky Steps”.
Roads around the scene of the fire were closed in the afternoon as investigators worked. The onlookers and neighbors had largely moved to the nearby primary school, where relatives and friends of the residents of the house gathered to await the news.
A small group of people, some wrapped in Salvation Army blankets, stared down 23rd Street, where the fire had started, hugging each other and crying. Many of the children’s friends stopped by the school hoping for information when their texts and calls went unanswered.
Rabia Turner said she arrived home this morning to bring clothes for her cousins, who were able to survive the fire. He said that people gathered at the school for warmth and someone to talk to.
“It’s like swimming—everybody is swimming,” he said before running away.
Authorities held a news conference near the scene of the fire earlier in the day.
“That was absolutely bullshit. I have been around for 35 years now and this is probably one of the deadliest fires ever,” said Craig Murphy, first deputy fire commissioner.
Mayor Jim Kenney said, “Losing so many children is just devastating.” “Keep these kids in your prayers.”
First Lady Jill Biden, who shares close ties to President Joe Biden from the Philadelphia area, tweeted: “My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the victims of the tragic fire in Philadelphia.”
Murphy said the crew responded around 6:40 a.m. and saw flames pouring out of the front windows of the second floor, which are believed to be the kitchen. The building’s heterogeneous configuration — originally a single-family home divided into two apartments — made it difficult to navigate, he said. He said the personnel brought it under control in less than an hour.
There were four smoke alarms in the building, Murphy said, none of which were working. He said 18 people lived in the upstairs apartments on the second and third floors, and eight in the downstairs apartments, which included part of the first floor and the second floor.
Murphy said the duplex was too large for 26 people to live, but a spokesman for Philadelphia’s Department of Licensing and Inspection said the city does not limit the number of family members who can live in a unit. And the mayor said the people should stop the decision.
“You don’t know the circumstances of each family, and there were probably relatives and families who needed shelter,” Kenny said. “Obviously there was tragedy, and we all mourn for it. But we cannot decide on the number of people living in the house because sometimes people need to stay indoors.
The alarms were inspected annually, and in 2020 at least two were replaced, with the others having batteries replaced at the time, Philadelphia Housing Authority officials said, with the last inspection taking place in May 2021.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” said Andrea Dszenczuk, 68, whose family has long owned a house in the neighborhood and who takes their dog out of the burnt house regularly. I have old wiring – it’s probably 125 years old. Who knows what’s behind the walls.”
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