Virginia “Jenny” Thomas wanted out of that apartment.
She’d lived there for a decade, in a Philadelphia Housing Authority-owned property on a graceful, leafy block of brownstones in the upscale Fairmount neighborhood. But, counting Thomas and her four kids, 14 people were on the lease for just four bedrooms in the unit, a noisy, toy-scattered, sometimes-chaotic space that filled the third floor and part of the second.
The large family, including Thomas’ mother and her sisters, had lived in too-tight public housing for years, moving to Fairmount after they outgrew a rowhouse in North Philadelphia, and often struggling to pay the rent.
As the year began, Thomas was messaging Facebook friends, like Steve Harris, asking for help finding a new place to stay. On Tuesday evening, she sought guidance from Margaret Wayne, the paternal grandmother of her three youngest children.
“She was like, ‘I don’t want to be here no more. I’m trying to get out of here, to find a place for me and my kids,’” Wayne said. “I said, ‘Do what’s best for you and your babies.’” Wayne said that she had advised Thomas to go to a shelter if necessary but that Thomas then abruptly ended the conversation.
”Something was bothering her,” Wayne said, “but she wouldn’t speak out to me what it was.”
Thomas never got the fresh start she was seeking. Early Wednesday morning, a fire consumed the apartment where the 30-year-old mother, her children, sisters, nieces, and nephews were sleeping. Nine children and three adults died. Only two people survived: a 5-year-old boy who slipped out as the blaze spread out of control and a 37-year-old man who climbed out a window.
By the time the blaze was extinguished, about an hour later, it would be counted as the deadliest tragedy in Philadelphia in a generation. In the days that followed, it would launch a city into mourning — and raise questions about the city’s public housing apparatus, the state of affordable housing, and whether fire precautions are keeping the most vulnerable residents safe in their homes.
‘But the baby!’
In the apartment downstairs, Tyhara Carter and her children were awakened Wednesday by the sound of screaming. A woman’s voice was saying, “Oh my God!”
She and her boyfriend, Charles Scott, smelled smoke and scrambled out of bed, yelling for their three boys to move. They pushed through the door into the entryway.
There, frozen in the landing, Carter encountered the 5-year-old boy who lived in the upper unit. With a child in each hand, she tried to push him out the door. But he would not move, Carter would later tell her sister — he was worried about his mother, still trapped upstairs. Now, Scott was urging Carter to hurry — so she pleaded with him: “But the baby! The baby!” Scott picked up the little boy, and they pushed outside into a freezing January morning.
The first 911 call came at 6:36 a.m. Within three minutes, 35 more would follow.
“We’re getting multiple calls, reported people inside,” a dispatcher said.
The screams awakened neighbors. A couple who lived across the street rushed outside and saw Robinson in the street and the boy in the doorway of the burning building.
By 6:40, the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Engine 34 was on location, having made the one-mile journey from 28th and Thompson Streets in what union president Mike Bresnan figured was “pretty good time.” Its tank contained 500 gallons of water — enough to last firefighters just two minutes. They arrived to find flames rushing out the second-floor windows, lighting up the street, and spewing thick, ink-black plumes of smoke.
“We got a three-story, brick row dwelling,” a first responder reported over fire radio. “We got heavy fire showing on the second floor. Heavy smoke on the third floor. … Prepare for rescue.”
Firefighters stretched more than 150 feet of hose line to the door, turned on their air tanks, and began to attack the fire. Meanwhile, the driver rushed to hook up a hydrant.
Inside, firefighters found poor visibility and intense heat.
“You have to really disperse the water off the ceiling and the walls, sweeping the floor, and you can’t see anything,” Bresnan said. “It is really labor intensive for the person operating the nozzle — the equipment is heavy and the adrenaline is flowing and it’s a lot of heat. You can run out of oxygen quick.” He said the first firefighter to reach the second floor was able to stay for more than 15 minutes before running out of air, bringing the fire there largely under control.
But by then, the staircase to the third floor, where four bedrooms were located, was ablaze.
“Reported people trapped,” a call went out at 6:49 over fire radio.
Staircases can become like “deadly chimneys,” Bresnan said. He believes that’s what happened here. A ladder company rushed to the roof and cut holes over the stairwell to release combustible gases that would otherwise feed the fire.
By 7:06, a commander reported the bulk of the fire had been “knocked down.” Members of the Rescue 1 team pushed upward to the third floor and began looking for victims.
They found them: A young girl collapsed on a third-floor landing. Three more people in a middle bedroom. Six children in the bedroom next door — a space that had been outfitted with a mix of bunk beds and trundle beds, according to Karyn Laury, grandmother of one of the fire victims, Quintien Tate-McDonald, 16.
Rosalee McDonald, 33, had been trapped in the front bedroom. Her boyfriend of more than a decade, Howard Robinson — who is known as “Pudda” and posted love notes on McDonald’s Facebook page, calling her “the reason I smile” — had found the hallway too smoky to negotiate. Instead, he went out the window. He attempted to climb down but lost his grip and fell. Outside, he began screaming for McDonald to toss their child into his arms, according to police reports — but she did not. Both died.
A child removed from the building by a rescue team showed signs of life, according to the Fire Department — but did not survive. The rest, Bresnan was told, were already dead when the team arrived. “They just passed out,” he said, “and never woke up.”
The incident commander declared the fire under control at 7:31.
‘The safety ... was not in question’
By Wednesday afternoon, the fire was out and investigators had sought a search warrant, a routine step to permit law enforcement to examine the scene.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which routinely assists local fire investigators, called in a national response team of agents specializing in engineering and fire investigation to sort through the rubble. In the days that followed, investigators combed through the debris. They have not officially ruled on the cause, officials said, but are expected to release their preliminary findings in the coming days.
Police documents offer one source of information on the origin of the blaze: The 5-year-old who escaped told neighbors he’d been playing with a lighter. The child repeated it to a paramedic, a worker at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and to homicide detectives. He said he’d accidentally set fire to the family’s Christmas tree, which went up in flames — and quickly ignited the entire property.
More questions remain, including why so many people were living in one three-story house — at the time of the fatal fire, the adult residents included McDonald, Thomas, and a third sister, Quinsha White, age 18 — and whether the housing authority did enough to keep them safe.
“When we moved the family in 2011, we moved them because they were under-housed. We provided them a larger unit,” said PHA chief executive Kelvin Jeremiah. The primary leaseholder was Vanessa McDonald, mother of the three sisters. She was not at the address when the fire occurred.
PHA’s occupancy standards suggest that a four-bedroom unit should accommodate no more than eight people, but the agency said it is legally prohibited from forcing people to move when their family sizes exceed those standards.
Jeremiah said PHA had “absolutely no indication” that family members wanted to move, but will review the case. “What we are doing right now is to frankly support our family that is grieving,” he said. “There’ll be opportunity to assess whether or not that should have been the case, whether or not we should have moved them even if they didn’t want to.”
He added: “The quality of the unit was not in question, the safety of the unit was not in question.”
PHA has acknowledged that the unit lacked some working fire safety equipment, including a fire extinguisher. There was no fire escape or roof exit, though Jeremiah said PHA had determined existing windows and doors provided “appropriate” means of egress.
Officials with the authority said there were six working smoke detectors and three carbon monoxide detectors in the apartment when it was inspected last spring, but fire officials said Wednesday that at least some of those didn’t appear to be working. At the last inspection, in April 2021, inspectors found two alarms were missing batteries, and installed new ones.
The property’s history also shows that the downstairs neighbors had complained about an infestation and said they were “overwhelmed with furniture and trash in the shared yard and basement from” the upstairs apartment. In Landlord-Tenant Court, PHA had sought to evict McDonald and her family from the unit seven times, most often seeking to extract overdue payments on her $433 monthly rent.
By week’s end, the family’s tragedy had retreated from the glare of national media attention. But that corner of Fairmount was still cordoned off with police tape and strewn with memorials: huge piles of plush stuffed animals, garlands of balloons along a schoolyard fence, notes of mourning from both adults and children.
The victims, aged from 2 to 33, included Destiny McDonald, 15, a rising basketball star with relentless drive; Quintien Tate-McDonald, 16, a kid so kind he once showed up at a teacher’s house after a fatal shooting to offer condolences; and Thomas’ three daughters, 10-year-old Shaniece, 7-year-old Natasha, and 3-year-old Janiyah.
Kayla Henderson, a cousin by marriage to Thomas, said the family was bonded by kindness — a tone she said Thomas set for all her children.
”You never really heard her raising her voice,” Henderson, 26, said. “She was always comforting.”
Henderson noted that Thomas’ son had a birthday on Friday. Family members put out a call for clothing, shoe, and toy donations for the boy. In addition, several crowdfunding campaigns have raised more than $300,000.
As for Henderson, she has not even started to process the depth of the loss.
”It may sound horrible,” she said, “but I just keep trying to pretend that it didn’t happen.”
Correction, Jan. 9, 2022: An earlier version of this article misstated how many children and adults had died in the fire. It was nine children and three adults.