Philadelphia fire: Lighter, Christmas tree started fire that killed 12 in Fairmount

Fire investigators on Tuesday said a Christmas tree ignited by a lighter caused a deadly rowhome fire in Fairmount last week that killed 12 people, including nine children. 

"We believe with certainty - so 99 to 100% confidence - that the first item ignited in this blaze was a Christmas tree," Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said. "We believe with near certainty, based on the evidence, the ignition source for this tree was a lighter that was located nearby."

Thiel detailed the "exhaustive" investigation that included looking for all possible sources of ignition and sifting through charred debris. Investigators eventually concluded that a lighter found near the tree sparked the deadly fire.

Earlier in the week, a warrant revealed that authorities were investigating if a 5-year-old child playing with a lighter ignited the deadly blaze. Thiel did not confirm the theory, but he said that a 5-year-old was the only person on the second floor where the tree and the lighter were located at the time of the fire. 

"We are left with the words of that 5-year-old child, that traumatized 5-year-old child, to help us understand how the lighter and the tree came together with tragic consequences," Thiel said. 


Firefighters responded to the three-story rowhome at 869 North 23rd Street in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood around 6:40 a.m. Wednesday. Crews from Engine 34 found heavy flames and smoke coming from the second floor of the home.

"Fire conditions were not what you see on television," Thiel explained. "There was zero visibility, high heat - and by high heat, I'm talking about 900-1000 degrees at the ceiling - toxic smoke filling the entire building, and it's loud in a fire." 

Fire officials said that companies began working to put out the fire, which they got under control in less than an hour.  Crews soon discovered that 12 people perished in the fire, including nine children. 

"Rest assured, those firefighters did their level best - as our medics did their best - to save those lives," Thiel said. "Tragically we know that despite the best response from our dedicated firefighters, medics, dispatchers, sometimes we are too late."

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Medical Examiner’s Office on Tuesday said all 12 people died of smoke inhalation. They also released the identities of the victims: 

  • Dekwan Robinson
  • Destiny McDonald
  • Janiyah Roberts
  • J'Kwan Robinson
  • Natasha Wayne
  • Quientien Tate-McDonald
  • Quinsha White
  • Rosalee McDonald
  • Shaniece Wayne
  • Taniesha Robinson
  • Tiffany Robinson
  • Virginia Thomas

The building is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the city’s public housing agency and the state’s biggest landlord.

Fourteen people were authorized to live in the four-bedroom upper apartment that "suffered the tragedy," according to Kelvin Jeremiah, the housing authority's president and CEO, while six people were on the lease in the lower unit.

When the family upstairs became tenants in 2011, there were six people — a grandmother, her three daughters and two of their children, Jeremiah said. He said the family grew over the next decade to add another eight children.

The fire department previously said none of the four smoke alarms in the building appeared to have been working. But housing authority officials said Thursday the building actually had 13 tamper-resistant, 10-year detectors in the units, all of which were operational during the last inspection in May 2021.

Thiel said investigators found seven nonfunctioning smoke alarms in the unit where the deadly fire occurred. Three of the alarms were in a kitchen drawer, another was found in a bedroom drawer. 

"One was on the ceiling of a bedroom, but the battery door was open and there was no battery inside and there was another one on the floor of a bedroom with no battery inside," Thiel said. 

A smoke alarm found on the floor of a shared basement did work, but it was late to chirp because smoke and heat rise, Thiel explained.

At least two people were hospitalized and some others managed to escape from the building, officials have said. Officials said Wednesday that 26 people were staying in the two apartments.

Family members on Facebook have identified two of the victims as sisters Rosalee McDonald, 33, and Virginia Thomas, 30. The siblings each had multiple children, but it’s unclear if all of them were home at the time of the fire or how many of them died. 



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