PHILADELPHIA – A dozen people, including eight children, were killed in an apartment building fire Wednesday morning in what city officials called a “tremendous loss of life.”
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 fatality report to 12 from an initial report of 13.
The blaze is among the deadliest in the city and its cause has yet to be determined. Officials promised to continue investigating.
As the building burned, eight people were able to escape. A child and one other person were also taken to a hospital for treatment, Philadelphia Fire Department First Deputy Commissioner Craig Murphy said at a news conference.
In a procession of seven police vehicles, including four pickup trucks, the bodies of the victims were removed from the burning building Wednesday night.
The building was owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the fourth-largest public housing agency in the country, and had been converted from a large semi-detached house into two apartments, Officer Miguel Torres of the Philadelphia Police Department told USA TODAY. .
“I’ve been around for 35 years and this is probably one of the worst fires I’ve ever been to,” Murphy said.
Philadelphia firefighters responded around 6:40 am and found “intense fire” on the second floor of a three-story townhouse. They entered the building and found dense smoke, heat, and limited vision on each floor. Fire crews erected ladders and sprayed water on the fire, allowing them to enter the building and rescue a child. Another child found by the crews did not survive, the department said.
It took about 50 minutes to bring the fire under control.
Rebecca Miller, who lives nearby, came out around 7 a.m. and could see smoke and fire trucks. He said he also heard what “sounded like a grown woman’s scream.”
The smoke detectors in the building were powered by 10-year-old lithium batteries, but “none of them worked,” Murphy said.
The building was last inspected in May 2021 and the smoke detectors were working properly at the time, Philadelphia Housing Authority President Kelvin Jeremiah said in a statement. statement on Facebook.
“This unimaginable loss of life has shocked all of us at PHA. It is 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 other part of the second, Murphy said. The deputy fire commissioner couldn’t say if that was more than would be allowed, but said it was “a tremendous amount of people living in a duplex.”
Murphy said the fire marshal would investigate the cause of the fire. Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also at the scene. Murphy said the fire “was not necessarily considered suspicious” but that the investigation would be “all hands on deck.”
“We plan to make sure that this tremendous loss of life has not happened in vain,” he said.
Early Wednesday morning, some people from the Fairmount neighborhood gathered on a nearby corner. They were shocked, angry and sad.
“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 driveway of a house around the corner. the corner.
“I can’t imagine how more people couldn’t get out, jumping out of a window,” he said.
Longtime Fairmount resident Ronald Umbrey recalled seeing children playing around the residence. He said people were coming and going quite frequently, and that the residence “just didn’t feel safe to me.”
“I lived here for 25 years and I had never seen a fire like this. I didn’t know anyone who lived there personally, but every time someone dies in a fire, it has to be terrible,” Umbrey said.
Avery McDonald, a nursing student at Temple University, couldn’t believe the “destruction and loss of life.”
“I felt powerless,” he said. “But I don’t know what could have been done to save those people.”
Aerial footage from WPVI-TV showed the top two floors of the building near the corner of an intersection burned and blackened near the windows.
Jasmine Stokes said she heard a commotion in the morning and was told what happened later by a neighbor.
“That was a big place and it’s a shame the children lost their lives,” Stokes said. “I wonder if it could have been somehow prevented.”
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf issued a statement on Twitter, saying he was “devastated” by the fire.
“My heart goes out to the loved ones left to cope with this heartbreaking loss of life,” he said. “Thanks to the brave first responders who controlled the fire.”
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.”
Contributing: Associated Press
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