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Monday, January 24, 2022

A 5-year-old told investigators that the Christmas tree ignited while playing with a lighter

, Update: Live coverage of the massive fire

A 5-year-old boy who survived a fire that killed 12 people at a Fairmount apartment told investigators Wednesday that the fire started after accidentally setting a Christmas tree on fire while playing with a lighter, according to police records obtained by The Enquirer.

When the first reaction reached the three-story rowhouse before sunrise, the boy had made it out of the building. He then told a neighbor – and later a paramedic, a firefighter and hospital staff – how the fire had started and his mother had died.

New details emerged as local and federal investigators continued to analyze through the rubble Thursday and interview surviving witnesses, and family members of the victims gathered in the neighborhood for an evening surveillance. Authorities have not officially identified those who died in the upper unit of the brick duplex, but more names and details emerged: Relatives said the victims were three adult sisters and nine of their children.

Fire Department deputy chief Dennis Merrigan declined to discuss the cause, but said the city fire marshal’s office was leading a “very complex” investigation that used laser scanners to create 3-D renderings of the inside of the structure. use is included. The top unit sustained heavy smoke, fire and water damage.

» Read more: ‘A beautiful soul,’ a basketball star: Mourners remember teens killed in Fairmount fire and their family members

Special Agent Matthew Varisco, in charge of the ATF’s Philadelphia Field Division, said agents from the ATF’s national response team are also assisting with the investigation, as are electrical engineers and other experts. Varisco vowed that “no expense will be spared and no resources will be allocated.”

And officials from the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which owns the rental property, said they were working with investigators and evaluating their safety protocols. Authority CEO Calvin Jeremiah suffocated as he spoke with the mother of three sisters who had died.

“Our focus is on wrapping our arms around this family,” he said, “that the community, the staff working in this unit, [and] The police and firefighters who came out to witness this incredible loss of life. ,

Fire officials have said 26 people were occupying the 2,300-square-foot building along North 23rd Street. According to the PHA, 14 were listed as living in a four-bedroom upper unit.

The 5-year-old was one of at least two family members who survived the fire, which ignited after 6:30 a.m. It is unclear how the boy escaped, and why some other members of his family could not.

According to police records obtained by The Enquirer, a neighbor told investigators that she was taking care of the boy until medics arrived and told him that his mother had died and had started the fire. The child made similar statements to a paramedic and a firefighter, as well as to hospital staff at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

A detective interviewed the child at the hospital – the interrogation was caught on camera wearing an officer’s body – and the child said he was playing with an orange cigarette lighter and accidentally set the tree on fire.

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The statements formed the basis of a search-warrant application filed Wednesday by Philadelphia prosecutors in Common Place Court. That request, which was later approved by a judge, required investigators to gain access to the building and continue the investigation.

The Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet formally ruled on accidental deaths or homicides. But no charges are anticipated – children under the age of 10 cannot be criminally charged in Pennsylvania.

» Read more: Where to donate to help victims of the Fairmount fire

Sisters Rosalie Macdonald (33), Virginia Thomas (30) and Quinsha White (18) were among the dead.

Some of his children who died were students from Philadelphia’s school district, district officials confirmed. He did not specify how many students there were, but at least some attended the nearby Bache-Martin primary school.

One of the victims was 16-year-old Quintian Tate-MacDonald, a Bache-Martin graduate who attended Philadelphia Electrical and Technical Charter High School.

“There was a spirit in Quintian that filled our school building with joy and laughter,” said Erin Dougherty, CEO of Philadelphia Electrical and Technical High School. “He will be greatly missed here.”

His younger sister, Destiny McDonald, also died in the fire. According to a basketball coach, she was 14, and graduated from eighth grade in Bache-Martin in June.

Family members issued a flyer on the vigil on Thursday, requesting privacy. It said they have yet to arrange memorial services and are seeking donations for funeral arrangements.

» Read more: Two sisters and their children are among 12 killed in Philadelphia’s Rowhouse fire

Six members of a family that had leased out Rowhouse’s lower unit managed to escape, but lost most of their property. Markita Aldridge-Woods said her sister-in-law lived in the lower apartment with her adult daughter, Tihara, and three younger grandchildren. Two suffered minor burns after escaping from the building.

Tihara’s Aunt Debra Jackson said family members told how they heard screams from the unit above on Wednesday morning.

“My niece woke up screaming,” Jackson said. “She said she heard the scream and it was a louder, different kind of scream. That’s when she smelled the smoke.”

Jackson said her niece was able to quickly escape with her children and boyfriend—their apartment was closest to the building’s entrance.

Eldridge-Woods said the smoke detectors in the first-floor unit were working — an important point as investigators try to determine whether alarms were on throughout the building.

PHA officials said Thursday that the upper unit had six smoke detectors and two were replaced last spring during an annual inspection when officers usually check smoke detectors.

At the time, Jeremiah said, a couple of alarms were missing batteries but had been replaced.

Staff writers Kristen A. Graham, Ryan W. Briggs, Ximena Conde, Ellie Rushing and Rodrigo Torrezon contributed to this article.

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