After being roused by screaming, the neighbours glanced out their windows into the chilly, gloomy dawn. A rowhouse on 23rd Street was engulfed in flames, and neighbours on the street stared in fear as flames poured out of the second-story windows.
It took firefighters about an hour to extinguish the fire, which started shortly before daybreak. When they entered, they found what the neighbours had feared: there were people inside, and there were a lot of them.
According to the Philadelphia mayor’s office, the fire claimed the lives of twelve people, including eight young children. Craig Murphy, the deputy fire commissioner, said that two more people were injured and were transported to surrounding hospitals.
When Mayor Jim Kenney, the son of a fireman, spoke at a press conference only a few blocks away from the burned structure, he seemed to be at a loss for words. “We are seeing, without a question, one of the most devastating days in the history of our city,” he added.
Mrs. Purifoy, who was awakened by the news at approximately 7 a.m., described her state of consciousness as “in and out of consciousness all day.” The only member of the family that resided in the building that Ms. Purifoy was aware of who had survived was a 5-year-old child, according to her knowledge. She informed him that he was in a stable condition at a hospital and inquired about his family.
Officials said that they were unable to determine the cause of the fire at this time, however an investigation was ongoing. It was among the worst home fires in the country’s recent history, including a fire at a day care facility in Erie, Pa., that claimed the lives of five children in 2019 and a fire at an apartment building in Chicago that claimed the lives of ten children the previous year.
According to property records, the Philadelphia Housing Authority purchased the century-old, three-story brick rowhouse in 1967, after it was built as a public housing project. Originally, it was split into two units: one on the first level and half of the second, and another on the second floor and taking up most of the third. Mr. Murphy reported that there seemed to be a total of 26 persons in the building at the time of the incident, with eight in the lower apartment and 18 in the top unit, according to his investigation.
According to a representative from the housing authority, it was unclear why there were so many individuals in the building. According to Dinesh Indala, the executive vice president for housing operations at the housing authority, this would have been “an excessive” amount of residents for a given flat. While he could not identify the number of individuals who might lawfully dwell in the apartment, he did warn that there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding who was there when the fire broke out.
Community Legal Services in Philadelphia’s Jenna Collins stated the maximum occupancy for the biggest apartments administered by the housing authority was 12 individuals. The restrictions, however, she said, might become less rigid when life’s complexities arise; for example, if a person in a unit unexpectedly gets custody of multiple children, the family is not usually expelled while waiting for a bigger apartment to become available.
Officials said that both units had been examined by the housing authority within the previous year. According to a statement from Kelvin Jeremiah, the president of the housing authority, all smoke detectors were determined to be in working order when the home was inspected in May 2021, according to the statement.
Most of Fairmount’s modest brick rowhouses are in the process of becoming gentrified. It is north and east of some of the city’s most prominent museums and just south of Brewerytown, a less affluent area. For several residents of the block where the fire broke out, the morning unfolded in a sequence of shocks: the flames itself, the death toll, and the revelations about the lives of their neighbours who perished in the fire.
I was woken by the sound of screaming and realised there were hundreds of people in the building, said Laurie Roma, 44, who lives directly across the street from the fire and had no clue how many people were inside. I was aware that it was a P.H.A. residence. And all I hoped was that everyone made it out alive.”
She said that she had attempted to contact 911 that morning but that no one had responded, and that a neighbour had also reported having difficulty getting through to the operator. 911 got the initial reports reporting the incident at 6:36 a.m., and the dispatch centre received dozens more calls after that, according to a municipal spokesperson. It was 6:40 a.m. when the first firemen arrived on the site.
“We were just, you know, coming together stronger than we had been before,” Ms. Purifoy said in an interview on Wednesday evening. She said that the family had just lost their father, which had drawn them even closer together. “Because we were a family, we always remained together.”
Sumara Wright, 18, waited outside the primary school a few blocks away from the burned-out structure. She had gone over that morning to pick up computers for her brothers so they could work from home. Ms. Wright was informed about the fire by a teacher, who also informed her that one of the casualties was a close friend and former classmate of hers. On that particular morning, he and his siblings had been in the building.