PHILADELPHIA – Fighting back tears in biting cold, Andrea Underwood said a family is mourning the deaths of children and grandchildren as they continue to learn more about the fire that killed 12 people in the city’s Fairmount neighborhood on Wednesday morning.
Around 100 people gathered for a vigil outside a nearby school Thursday evening, many holding candles, lighters and mini flashlights.
Officials say eight of the victims were children. The blaze was the city’s deadliest single fire in more than a century.
“Our family would like to thank everyone for their kindness, generosity, and prayers during this horrific time. We feel the love and appreciate the support,” Underwood, a family spokesperson, said.
“The information we are willing to share is that our relative Vanessa McDonald lost her daughters Rosalee McDonald, Virginia Thomas and Quinsha White. She also lost nine grandchildren in the fire. There were two survivors.
“We are waiting for additional information in order to move forward with the memorial services,” she said, adding the family is requesting privacy at this time.
The crowd stood quietly as family of the victims held hands and had a moment of silence before releasing balloons into the frigid night air, a silence only broken by the weeping of the relatives, friends and neighbors, including those who didn’t know the McDonald family personally.
Christopher Stanford and his wife, Marci, said they brought their young children to the vigil to pay their respects and show that neighbors support the family.
“This is and will be a trying time for them. They may not know it, but the community is here for them and loves them,” Stanford said. “We will help them; I know we all will help them.”
A verified GoFundMe page for the family’s funeral expenses has raised more than $150,000.
City officials have not yet released the names or ages of the victims.
Wednesday’s fire may have started when a child was playing with a lighter, setting a Christmas tree on fire, according to a search warrant application.
The insight comes as city and federal investigators seek to determine the cause of the blaze. Fire officials on Thursday provided little new information and refused to speculate about the cause of the fire.
Details in the search warrant application were first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer and confirmed by Jane Roh, spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner.
The fire broke out in a three-story building that had been converted into two apartments where fire officials say more than 20 people were staying at the time.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on Thursday said it was mobilizing a National Response Team to aid in the investigation “given the magnitude and scope of the fire.” The ATF will work alongside the city’s fire marshal and police department, the agency said.
The Philadelphia Fire Department said crews responded to the blaze on North 23rd Street around 6:40 a.m. Wednesday and saw intense flames coming from the second floor.
“Firefighters immediately entered the building to find heavy smoke, heat, and limited visibility on all floors. They made an aggressive attack on the fire, raising multiple ladders to exterior windows and the roof, and conducting search-and-rescue efforts throughout the interior,” the city said in a statement Wednesday.
‘Tremendous loss of life’:At least 12 dead, including 8 children, in Philadelphia apartment fire
One of the children was rescued from the building but did not survive, according to the statement.
The fire broke out inside a Philadelphia Housing Authority building in the Fairmount neighborhood, near Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River and home to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The building was equipped with smoke detectors but “none of them operated,” Philadelphia Fire Department First Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said.
The housing authority inspected one of the units in April 2021 and the other in May 2021, according to the statement from the city. Smoke detectors in the units were working during those inspections, the statement said.
Speaking Thursday, Philadelphia Housing Authority president Kelvin A. Jeremiah said “At the time of our inspection these equipment were fully operational.”
He also added that 10-year batteries had been replaced on schedule.
Fire officials said eight children and four adults died in the fire. Officials initially reported 13 people died, including seven children, but revised the number Wednesday evening.
A family living in the building consisted of a grandmother, her three daughters and their children, among others, Jeremiah said.
Some of the children killed were part of the School District of Philadelphia, the district said in a statement.
Tommy White said his first cousin, Vanessa McDonald, might never recover from the loss of her two daughters. McDonald was in a state of shock and not speaking, White said.
McDonald’s daughters each had children, but it’s unclear whether all of them were home at the time of the fire or how many of them died, he said.
“We’re just trying to cushion the blow for them at this time,” White said Thursday. “They are still in a place of denial. They are still struggling to accept this.
“The pain they are experiencing and the things that they are going to continue to feel for the rest of their lives – that’s the part they share alone. At this point in time, Vanessa is not in a position to talk about that because her heart is not there.”
Philadelphia’s code does not limit occupancy for family residences, Department of Licenses and Inspections spokesperson Karen Guss told USA TODAY. It’s also possible some of the people in the building may have been guests and not residents, she said.
There were no records of violations issued by the city licenses and inspections department, Guss added. The number of exits at the building was sufficient, she said.
Philadelphia Housing Authority’s president said at the time of Wednesday’s fire, family members may have still been spending time together after the winter holidays.
“This is a time of year when family gather,” said Jeremiah at a press briefing Thursday.
Addressing the size of the family, Jeremiah said apartments containing more than two family generations are not unusual in cities like Philadelphia.
“This not unique to Philadelphia or the United States frankly,” he said. “We have intergenerational families.”
Murphy said Wednesday that the building had two exits. The number of exits did not hinder the rescue attempt, he added.
Wednesday’s fire was the deadliest home fire in Pennsylvania and among the deadliest in U.S. history, according to a database compiled by the National Fire Protection Association.
Only five other home fires tracked by the group since 1980 were deadlier.
In Pennsylvania, 11 people were killed in 1998 in Miles Township when a cabin went up in flames. In 1985, 11 people in Philadelphia were killed when police bombed a house associated with MOVE, a Black liberation group. The bombing caused a fire that spread to dozens of row homes.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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