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Investigators confirm Philadelphia house fire started by Christmas tree

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Update (Jan. 12, 2022): Philadelphia investigators confirmed that last week’s deadly house fire was initially started when a Christmas tree caught fire. The video above shows the fire, as well as a briefing from fire department officials. Those officials stopped short of assigning blame for the Christmas tree fire to a 5-year-old child playing with a lighter. Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel did say the boy was the only person on that floor at the time of the fire.

“We believe, with near-certainty based on the evidence, that the ignition source for that tree was a lighter that was located nearby,” Thiel said. “We are left with the words of that five year-old child, that traumatized 5-year-old child, to help us understand how the lighter and the tree came together with tragic consequences.”

Update (Jan. 7, 2022): A search warrant filed by city and federal investigators reveal they are looking into whether this week’s deadly house fire in Philadelphia was started when a 5-year-old child set a Christmas tree on fire while playing with a lighter. A spokesperson for the local district attorney confirmed the contents of the search warrant Thursday.

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

According to the family, there were two survivors. Temple University Hospital said one was in stable condition.

Update (Jan. 6, 2022): Over a day of investigating had not yet revealed the cause of Wednesday morning’s deadly house fire in Philadelphia. Fire officials provided few details at a news briefing Thursday. They declined to say how many people escaped the fire. They also did not say where the fire began, calling it part of the investigation.

Meanwhile, specialists from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent Thursday taking photos of the scene.

“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,” Matthew Varisco, who leads the ATF’s Philadelphia branch, said.

Officials still have not released the names or ages of those killed in the fire. Family members on Facebook have identified two of the victims as sisters Rosalee McDonald and Virginia Thomas. The siblings, who were 33 and 30 years old respectively each had multiple children. It’s unclear how many of them were home at the time of the fire, as well as how many of them died.

Original Story (Jan. 5, 2022): A fire at a two-unit Philadelphia house killed 12 people and sent two others to hospitals Wednesday morning. 26 people were staying in the house at the time of the fire. Among the dead were eight children, whose names and ages hadn’t been released as of early Wednesday afternoon.

“I knew some of those kids — I used to see them playing on the corner,” neighbor Dannie McGuire said after the fire. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney added “Losing so many kids is just devastating.”

“Keep these babies in your prayers,” Kenney said.

The death toll from the house fire was the highest for a fire in Philadelphia in at least a century. The video above shows the scene of the fire.

“It was terrible.  I’ve been around for 30, 35 years now, and this is probably one of the worst fires I’ve ever been to,” Philadelphia Fire Department deputy fire commissioner Craig Murphy said at the news conference. “I don’t have the words for how we’re feeling right now as a community and as a department.” At the news conference, Murphy added the death toll “is dynamic because there’s still an ongoing recovery effort inside.”

In a Wednesday afternoon tweet, the Philadelphia Fire Department described Wednesday as “an unspeakably tragic day.”

According to fire officials, the fire started before 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. By 6:40, crews arrived on the scene to find flames shooting from the second-floor front windows of the home, in an area believed to be a kitchen. There were 18 people staying in the upstairs apartment on the second and third floors. The other eight were staying in the downstairs apartment, which included the first floor and part of the second floor.

Murphy said the odd configuration of the house, which had been split into two apartments, made it difficult to navigate. Crews were able to bring it under control in less than an hour.

While the cause of the fire had not been announced as of early Wednesday afternoon, fire officials discovered none of the four smoke alarms in the building were working. Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) officials said the alarms had been inspected annually, and at least two had been replaced in 2020.

“The property was last inspected in May 2021, and all smoke detectors were operating properly at that time,” PHA President/CEO Kevin Jeremiah said in a statement.

Commissioner Adam Thiel, Philadelphia Fire Department: “When we, as firefighters, take our oath, we are agreeing to willingly risk our lives in service to others. And we saw that commitment demonstrated on that fateful morning almost a week ago.”

“Now, remember, the fire conditions in that building were not what you see on television. There was zero visibility. High heat and by a high heat, I’m talking about 900 to a thousand degrees at the ceiling. Toxic smoke filling the entire building, and it’s loud in a fire.”

“Rest assured, those firefighters did their level best, as our medics, did their best to save those lives. Tragically, we know that despite the best response from our dedicated firefighters, medics, dispatchers, sometimes we are too late. And it appears from the preliminary investigation results on this tragic fire that that is the case.”

“We believe with certainty, so 99 to 100% confidence, that the first item ignited in this blaze was a Christmas tree. A Christmas tree on January 5th that was in the home. We believe, with near-certainty based on the evidence, that the ignition source for that tree was a lighter that was located nearby. That is after an exhaustive investigation looking at every outlet near that tree, doing X-ray analysis of the outlet, looking for any other ignition sources where the fireplaces, candles, etc.. The investigators literally sifted all of the debris from the unit where the fatalities occurred. And we believe, the investigators believe, that lighter was the reason the tree ignited.”

“Now that leaves us with as many of you have seen reported the words of a 5-year-old child who is essentially one of two survivors of this tragedy and really the sole survivor; the only person who was located, based on our the exhaustive interviews conducted by these trained investigators, the only person who was on the second floor, which is where the tree and the lighter were located at the time, we believe the blaze ignited. So, you know, we are left with the words of that five year-old child, that traumatized 5-year-old child, to help us understand how the lighter and the tree came together with tragic consequences.”

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Update (Jan. 12, 2022): Philadelphia investigators confirmed that last week’s deadly house fire was initially started when a Christmas tree caught fire. The video above shows the fire, as well as a briefing from fire department officials. Those officials stopped short of assigning blame for the Christmas tree fire to a 5-year-old child playing with a lighter. Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel did say the boy was the only person on that floor at the time of the fire.

“We believe, with near-certainty based on the evidence, that the ignition source for that tree was a lighter that was located nearby,” Thiel said. “We are left with the words of that five year-old child, that traumatized 5-year-old child, to help us understand how the lighter and the tree came together with tragic consequences.”

Update (Jan. 7, 2022): A search warrant filed by city and federal investigators reveal they are looking into whether this week’s deadly house fire in Philadelphia was started when a 5-year-old child set a Christmas tree on fire while playing with a lighter. A spokesperson for the local district attorney confirmed the contents of the search warrant Thursday.

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

According to the family, there were two survivors. Temple University Hospital said one was in stable condition.

Update (Jan. 6, 2022): Over a day of investigating had not yet revealed the cause of Wednesday morning’s deadly house fire in Philadelphia. Fire officials provided few details at a news briefing Thursday. They declined to say how many people escaped the fire. They also did not say where the fire began, calling it part of the investigation.

Meanwhile, specialists from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spent Thursday taking photos of the scene.

“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,” Matthew Varisco, who leads the ATF’s Philadelphia branch, said.

Officials still have not released the names or ages of those killed in the fire. Family members on Facebook have identified two of the victims as sisters Rosalee McDonald and Virginia Thomas. The siblings, who were 33 and 30 years old respectively each had multiple children. It’s unclear how many of them were home at the time of the fire, as well as how many of them died.

Original Story (Jan. 5, 2022): A fire at a two-unit Philadelphia house killed 12 people and sent two others to hospitals Wednesday morning. 26 people were staying in the house at the time of the fire. Among the dead were eight children, whose names and ages hadn’t been released as of early Wednesday afternoon.

“I knew some of those kids — I used to see them playing on the corner,” neighbor Dannie McGuire said after the fire. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney added “Losing so many kids is just devastating.”

“Keep these babies in your prayers,” Kenney said.

The death toll from the house fire was the highest for a fire in Philadelphia in at least a century. The video above shows the scene of the fire.

“It was terrible.  I’ve been around for 30, 35 years now, and this is probably one of the worst fires I’ve ever been to,” Philadelphia Fire Department deputy fire commissioner Craig Murphy said at the news conference. “I don’t have the words for how we’re feeling right now as a community and as a department.” At the news conference, Murphy added the death toll “is dynamic because there’s still an ongoing recovery effort inside.”

In a Wednesday afternoon tweet, the Philadelphia Fire Department described Wednesday as “an unspeakably tragic day.”

According to fire officials, the fire started before 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. By 6:40, crews arrived on the scene to find flames shooting from the second-floor front windows of the home, in an area believed to be a kitchen. There were 18 people staying in the upstairs apartment on the second and third floors. The other eight were staying in the downstairs apartment, which included the first floor and part of the second floor.

Murphy said the odd configuration of the house, which had been split into two apartments, made it difficult to navigate. Crews were able to bring it under control in less than an hour.

While the cause of the fire had not been announced as of early Wednesday afternoon, fire officials discovered none of the four smoke alarms in the building were working. Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) officials said the alarms had been inspected annually, and at least two had been replaced in 2020.

“The property was last inspected in May 2021, and all smoke detectors were operating properly at that time,” PHA President/CEO Kevin Jeremiah said in a statement.

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