PHILADELPHIA – A dozen people were killed, including eight children, in an apartment building fire Wednesday morning in what city officials called a “tremendous loss of life.”
Hours after the blaze, the Philadelphia Fire Department cautioned the death toll could change as the building was secured and searched. On Wednesday evening, the department lowered its report of deaths to 12 from an initial report of 13.
The fire is among the city’s deadliest ever, and its cause has not yet been determined. Officials vowed to continue investigating.
As the building burned, eight people were able to escape. A child and another person were also taken to a hospital for treatment, Philadelphia Fire Department First Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said in a news conference.
In a procession of seven police vehicles, including four vans, the bodies of the victims were removed from the burned-out building Wednesday night.
The building was owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the country’s fourth largest public housing agency, and had been converted from a large row house into two apartments, Officer Miguel Torres of the Philadelphia Police Department told USA TODAY.
“I’ve been around for 35 years now, and this is probably one of the worst fires I’ve ever been to,” Murphy said.
Philadelphia firefighters responded at about 6:40 a.m. and found “heavy fire” on the second story of a three-floor row house. They entered building and found thick smoke, heat and limited sight on each floor. Fire crews raised ladders and sprayed water on the blaze, allowing them to enter the building and rescue one child. Another child found by crews did not survive, the department said.
It took about 50 minutes to control the blaze.
Rebecca Miller, who lives nearby, stepped outside around 7 a.m. and could see smoke and fire trucks. She said she also heard what “sounded like an adult woman screaming.”
Smoke detectors in the building were battery-operated with 10-year lithium batteries, but “none of them operated,” Murphy said.
The building was last inspected in May 2021 and smoke detectors were working properly then, Philadelphia Housing Authority President Kelvin Jeremiah said in a statement on Facebook.
“This unimaginable loss of life has shaken all of us at PHA. It is too early for us to say more,” Jeremiah said.
At least 18 people were living in the upper apartment, which included the third floor and part of the second, and eight people were living in the lower unit, which included the first floor and the other part of the second, Murphy said. The deputy fire commissioner could not say whether that was more than what would be allowed but called it a “tremendous amount of people to be living in a duplex.”
Murphy said the fire marshal would investigate the cause of the fire. Officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also at the scene. Murphy said that the fire was “not necessarily considered suspicious” but that the investigation would be “all hands on deck.”
“We plan on making sure that this tremendous loss of life did not happen in vain,” he said.
Early Wednesday, a few people in 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 doorway of a home around the corner.
“I can’t picture how more people couldn’t get out — jumping out a window,” she said.
Longtime Fairmount resident Ronald Umbrey recalled seeing children play around the residence. He said people moved in and out fairly often, and the residence “just didn’t look safe to me.”
“I lived here for 25 years and never seen such a fire. I didn’t know anyone who lived there personally, but anytime someone perished in a fire, it had to bad,” Umbrey said.
Avery McDonald, a nursing student at Temple University, couldn’t believe the “destruction and loss of life.”
“I sort of felt helpless,” she 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 out and blackened near the windows.
Jasmine Stokes said she heard a commotion in the morning, and a neighbor told her what happened later.
“That was a big place, and it’s a shame that children lost their lives,” Stokes said. “I wonder if it could have been prevented somehow.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf released a statement on Twitter, saying he was “devastated” about the blaze.
“My heart goes out to the loved ones left to cope with this heartbreaking loss of life,” he said. “Thank you to the brave first responders who got the fire under control.”
Mayor Jim Kenney, whose father was a firefighter, called the blaze “one of the most tragic days in our city’s history.”
“Losing so many kids is just devastating.”
Contributing: Associated Press
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