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Two sisters and their children are among the 12 who died in Philadelphia’s rowhouse fire

Virginia Thomas, 30, and Rosalee McDonald, 33, and most of their children died in the blaze that tore through a PHA rowhouse in Fairmount early Wednesday.

Two people embrace a block away from the scene of a fatal fire in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Two people embrace a block away from the scene of a fatal fire in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia on Wednesday.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Aneisha Thomas had been on the phone in Georgia all day trying to make sense of what had happened to her cousins and their children.

There had been a fire. A horrible fire, one of the worst Philly officials said they had seen in decades.

Gone were her two first cousins, sisters Virginia Thomas, 30, and Rosalee McDonald, 33, and most of their children in the early-morning blaze that tore through a three-floor Philadelphia Housing Authority rowhouse in a neighborhood just north of Philadelphia’s city center.

Most if not all had lived in the upstairs four-bedroom apartment on North 23rd Street. Ten children had died, Aneisha Thomas was told four of Virginia Thomas’ children — all under the age of 11 — and McDonald’s six. City officials would later put the number of children killed at eight.

A family, lost.

» READ MORE: Where to donate to help victims of the Fairmount fire

Aneisha Thomas, who grew up with her two first cousins in Philadelphia, could barely speak on the phone Wednesday afternoon as she remembered the sisters and their kids.

“When I go visit Philly, it’s going to be a void,” the 36-year-old said. “It’s going to be a blank stare when I visit because of how I can’t go visit them.”

Details about those who died remained scarce Wednesday evening. The city has yet to release the names of all 12 victims — four adults and eight children.

Most family members reached declined interviews, and some of those who did speak to The Inquirer said they still weren’t sure who had died and who had made it out.

» READ MORE: What we know and what we don't about the Fairmount house fire

McDonald and Virginia Thomas’ sister, Keta Purifoy, said her family was still waiting on a final list of those they have lost.

“I don’t have no emotion, so I can’t really speak about nothing because I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on, just like everybody else,” Purifoy, 37, said in the afternoon outside nearby Bache-Martin Elementary School before her family pulled her into a prayer circle.

» READ MORE: Fairmount house fire that killed 8 children and 4 adults is one of the nation's deadliest in decades

Virginia Thomas, or Jenny, as she was known, and McDonald, known as Rose, were both Muslim, said Caprice Duckett, Virginia Thomas’ friend. Both Duckett and Aneisha Thomas described Virginia Thomas as very sweet. “She didn’t bother nobody,” Duckett said.

Virginia Thomas liked doing hair — she used to do Duckett’s stepdaughter’s — and she loved tattoos and piercings, Duckett said. She had gotten tattoos of her children’s names — Shaniece, Natasha, Janiyah, Rahsean — and pierced her tongue with a horizontal barbell, known as snake eyes.

She loved to party, Duckett said, and she was also very family-oriented. She always made sure her kids had birthday parties. Shaniece Wayne, her oldest, who was 10, and Natasha Wayne, who was 7, had just celebrated birthdays in November.

Duckett recalled Virginia Thomas’ kids as being very smart; Shaniece had won a perfect-attendance award at school not long ago.

» READ MORE: ‘They was only babies’: After Fairmount fire, Philadelphia mourns an unthinkable loss

The fire began in the kitchen of the upstairs apartment, according to the Philadelphia Fire Department. It’s still not clear if anyone in the lower unit was injured. A woman who lives there said she was not in her apartment when the fire occurred but declined to speak further.

Fire Department officials said early Wednesday that 26 people were in the rowhouse at the time of the fire, including 18 in the upstairs apartment.

PHA spokesperson Kirk Dorn said that a family of six had moved into the upstairs apartment about a decade ago but that the household had expanded over the years with young children. Due to the pandemic and high demand for public housing, Dorn said, PHA couldn’t move the family to a larger unit even if they had requested it.

Staff writers Ximena Conde, Rodrigo Torrejón and Anna Orso contributed to this article.