Investigators are determining if a child under 5 years old with a lighter may have caused a deadly fire in Philadelphia

Originally Published: 07 JAN 22 04:15 ET
Updated: 07 JAN 22 06:42 ET

    (CNN) -- Investigators are working to determine the cause behind a deadly fire in Philadelphia that took the lives of 12 people on Wednesday.

One avenue being pursued is whether a child under the age of 5 playing with a lighter under a tree could have sparked the blaze, according to Jane Roh, spokesperson for the Philadelphia District Attorney's office.

Other potential causes are also being examined, Roh said, and there are currently no plans to bring charges against anyone in relation to the fire.

Firefighters responded to flames around 6:40 a.m. Wednesday at a three-story row house that had been legally divided into two apartments, officials said. Responders found "heavy fire" in a kitchen area at the front of the second floor of the building, officials said.

There was "nothing slowing that fire from moving," said Philadelphia Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy, who told reporters during a news conference Thursday that city police and the ATF Philadelphia branch were assisting with the investigation.

"It's a very traumatic scene, it's a very complex investigation," said Fire Deputy Chief Dennis Merrigan with the Philadelphia Fire Marshal's Office. "It's something that would challenge us if we had to do it on our own."

The home is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, a municipal agency that leases homes to people with low income.

Three sisters and all but one of their 10 children died due to the fire, their family said.

Rosalee McDonald, 33; Virginia Thomas, 30, and Quinsha White, 18, were killed, according to their cousins Frank and Pamela McDonald. Six of Rosalee McDonald's children and three of Thomas' children also died in the fire. The ages of their children were not given.

Thomas' 5-year-old son survived, her cousin told CNN.

A GoFundMe page has been established to help pay for funeral expenses.


Victims remembered as others describe their escape


The women who died were very close and had lived together in the apartment since they were teenagers, their family said.

"They were both good people, good mothers and were very family-oriented," Frank McDonald told CNN. "Rosalee was one of the best people you could ever meet. She was very supportive -- they both were. They came down to help me with my business when I opened it."

Qaadira Purifoy told CNN affiliate KYW-TV that many of those who died were family members.

"Losing sisters, I never thought this would happen," Purifoy said. "Sisters, nieces and nephews."

One of the apartments was on the second and third floors, and the other was on the first floor. Debra Jackson's sister was able to escape the home's first floor with three of her children, she told KYW.

"Two of her sons got burned, she probably is just smoke inhalation. But thank God that they're alive," Jackson said. "My heart goes out to the family that lost all their family."

Philadelphia's school district said Wednesday it was working with City Council President Darrell Clarke to set up a fund to help the affected families.

Some of the children who died were students in city schools, the district said, without saying how many. The district said it also has made counseling and support services available for grieving students.


Agencies question if smoke detectors were working


The home had been legally divided into two apartments since the 1950s and has had no violations, according to a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections.

Murphy, the fire official, initially told reporters that four smoke detectors were in the building, "and none of them operated."

Murphy later indicated that Philadelphia Housing Authority records show that at least six battery-operated smoke detectors had been installed there from 2019 to 2020.

However, Dinesh Indala, PHA's senior executive vice president of operations, said the agency had different information about the detectors.

Unit A of the apartment had seven smoke detectors and three carbon monoxide detectors at its last inspection, Indala said Thursday. Unit B had six functional smoke detectors and three functional carbon monoxide detectors as of its last inspection in May 2021, Indala said.

Two batteries and two smoke detectors were replaced in 2021, Indala said. Smoke detectors also were replaced in the B unit in an inspection in September 2019, according to Indala.

"When we last conducted our inspection, the smoke detectors were, in fact, working," Jeremiah, the PHA CEO, said. "If the fire marshal determined, as a result of this fire, that they were not, in fact, working or they were not, in fact, operational, it would be that they were tampered with or the batteries were somehow removed. We don't go into units and remove batteries."

Faulty smoke detectors are treated as emergencies and are replaced in 24 hours if requested, Indala said, and the authority does inspections annually.

"Every time we come in for an inspection, as is evident from the last one, we had to replace two batteries, replace the smoke detectors. And these are 10-year smoke detectors, so that's something we run into quite often on our properties," Indala said.

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