8 Children, 4 Adults, Killed in Fast-Moving Philadelphia Row House Fire

Philadelphia duplex fire.
Local and federal officials are investigating the deadly blaze.Philadelphia Fire Department/Twitter

The Philadelphia blaze tore through a crowded duplex shortly before dawn, trapping residents inside, officials said.

Eight children and four adults perished in a fast-moving inferno that swept through a crowded Philadelphia duplex shortly before dawn Wednesday, authorities said. Revised figures were released Thursday after fire officials initially reported 13 people were killed, including seven children.

"That total is one less than the number reported in an earlier press conference when recovery operations were still ongoing," the city said Thursday in a statement.

"Firefighters immediately entered the building to find heavy smoke, heat, and limited visibility on all floors," the statement said. "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.

"Firefighters were able to rescue one child from the building, but the child did not survive," the city said.

The blaze ignited about 6:40 a.m. Wednesday and engulfed the three-story row house where as many as 26 people had been staying, according to fire officials. There were at least four smoke detectors in the building, but none of them were working, said Philadelphia Fire Department Deputy Commissioner Craig Murphy.

It was the city's deadliest single fire in more than 100 years. 

“This is without a doubt one of the most tragic days in our city’s history," said a visibly shaken Mayor Jim Kenney, outside the smoldering home. "The loss of so many people in such a tragic way, losing so many kids, is just devastating.”

Eight people were able to escape the deadly fire, Murphy said. An adult and a child were taken to nearby hospitals in critical condition, fire officials said.

“I’ve been around for 35 years now, and this is probably one of the worst fires I’ve ever been to,” said Murphy, who like the mayor struggled for words as he addressed reporters at the scene. “We plan on making sure that this tremendous loss of life did not happen in vain.”

One child who managed to escape told investigators their Christmas tree had caught fire, reported NBC10.

The cause of the blaze is under investigation by fire and federal officials. The rowhouse is operated by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, a federally funded supplier of affordable housing in the city. 

Murphy said the number of dead was “dynamic” and may increase as firefighters continued to search the building. “We have all hands on deck because of the magnitude of this fire,” he said.

Relatives said three sisters lived in the home with their children, one was identified as 32-year-old Virginia Thomas and a second was identified as Rosalee McDonald, according to WPVI-TV.

The housing agency issued posted a statement to Twitter on Wednesday.

Authorities warned against a rush to judgment over the number of people inside the duplex.

“Sometimes it’s better for people to be indoors than on the street,” Mayor Kenney said. “Maybe there were people or relatives that needed to be sheltered.”

He added, “We can’t make judgments on the people in the house, because sometimes people just need to be indoors.”

There were eight people living in the first-floor unit, and 18 people living in the second apartment, which occupied the second and third floors, Murphy, the deputy fire commissioner, said.

"That is a tremendous amount of people to be living in a duplex," he said.

Neighbors reported being awoken by screams and running outside to see flames shooting from the building's windows.

Police spokesman Eric McLaurin said flames quickly overwhelmed the structure. Fire officials said it took 50 minutes to extinguish the blaze. Only then could firefighters begin the grim search for bodies.

“You just pray for all involved,” officer McLaurin said. “It’s a bad situation.”

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