5-Year-Old Playing With Lighter May Have Started Deadly Philadelphia Row House Fire: Officials

Mourners outside Philadelphia rowhouse blaze.
Residents held a candlelight vigil for victims of a deadly rowhouse fire that killed 12 people.Getty

The Philadelphia home fire killed 12 people. No official cause has been determined, authorities said.

Investigators are looking into whether a 5-year-old playing with a lighter accidentally set a Christmas tree on fire, igniting a blaze that killed 12 family members in a Philadelphia row house, officials said.

That information was included in a search warrant application as part of an inquiry by local and federal authorities into the cause of an inferno that claimed the lives of eight children and four adults Wednesday morning. 

There has been no official determination of what sparked the deadly blaze.

Jane Roh, a spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner, confirmed the contents of the search warrant that was first reported Thursday by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Fire officials released few new details at a news briefing Thursday.

"I know that we will hopefully be able to provide a specific origin and cause to this fire and to provide some answers to the loved ones and, really, to the city," said Matthew Varisco of Philadelphia's branch of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The three-story duplex is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, a federally funded agency that provides low-income residences. It is the state's largest landlord.

Fire officials have said smoke detectors in the building were not working when the fast-moving fire tore through the structure. The agency said a 2021 inspection showed the battery-operated devices were functioning.

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

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.

“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.”

At a vigil Thursday night, relatives said the matriarch of their family had lost three daughters and nine grandchildren in the blaze. The daughters were identified as Rosalee McDonald, Virginia Thomas and Quinsha White. 

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.”

A GoFundMe account has been established to help with funeral costs. As of Friday, it had raised more than $230,000.

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