Cops: Boy's Lighter Ignited Christmas Tree in Devastating Fire

Police can now say with 'near certainty' that's the cause of blaze that killed 12
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 7, 2022 12:02 AM CST
Updated Jan 12, 2022 12:00 AM CST
Devastating Fire May Have Been Sparked by Boy Playing With Lighter Near Tree
A supporter is overcome with emotion during a candlelight vigil, Thursday evening, Jan. 6, 2022, to remember those who perished in a rowhouse fire in Philadelphia, Pa.   (Joe Lamberti/Camden Courier-Post via AP)

Update: Police say with "near certainty" that it was a 5-year-old playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree that ignited the devastating Philadelphia blaze that left 12 people dead. The child, whom police describe as "traumatized," was the only person on the second story of the three-story building and was one of only two occupants of that unit to survive. (All the occupants of the lower, first-story unit survived.) All 12 victims, identified as three sisters and nine of their children, were on the third floor, which was also part of the family's unit, ABC 6 reports. Our original story from Jan. 7 follows:

A 5-year-old playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree may have sparked the devastating Philadelphia fire that killed a dozen people, eight of them children, on Wednesday. That's according to police records obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer that indicate the child, who escaped the fire, told first a neighbor and then a paramedic, firefighter, hospital staff member, and police investigator that the tree went up in flames while he played with a lighter before sunrise. He also said his mom died in the ensuing blaze. Authorities have not released the identities of the dead, but they said a grandmother, her three daughters, and their children were among the tenants of the unit that burned. Original reports had the death toll at 13, but it has since been revised.

Family members said in a statement cited by USA Today, "our relative Vanessa McDonald lost her daughters Rosalee McDonald, Virginia Thomas and Quinsha White. She also lost nine grandchildren." There were two survivors, they say, and a GoFundMe campaign has been set up for them. The father of some of the children who lived in the building reportedly survived. The three-story Philadelphia Housing Authority-owned building in the city's Fairmount neighborhood had been converted into two units, one of which had 14 authorized tenants and the other of which had six. But 26 people were in the building at the time of the fire, NBC Philadelphia reports. "This was a time of year when families gather. ... This is a family that wanted to be together," says the president and CEO of the PHA.

The city's code has no occupancy limit for family residences. All the residents of the second unit in the building survived, as their unit was on the ground floor. None of the building's six smoke detectors operated, according to the Philadelphia Fire Department's first deputy fire commissioner; the PHA says the units were last inspected in April and May of 2021 and the detectors were working at that time, and that the 10-year batteries had been replaced on schedule. A Department of Licenses and Inspections spokesperson says the number of exits from the building was sufficient. Firefighters found the building already impacted by "heavy smoke, heat, and limited visibility on all floors" when they arrived. (Read more Philadelphia stories.)

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