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‘Only babies’: After Fairmount fire, Philadelphia mourns an unthinkable loss

Philadelphia struggled to process the loss of eight children in one of the deadliest tragedies in the city's history.

Family and friends pray together at the scene of a fatal fire near Parrish and 23rd Street in Fairmount Philadelphia on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. The fire killed 12 people, according to police. (Thomas Hengge/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
Family and friends pray together at the scene of a fatal fire near Parrish and 23rd Street in Fairmount Philadelphia on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. The fire killed 12 people, according to police. (Thomas Hengge/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)Read moreThomas Hengge / MCT

The scent of smoke hung over Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood, where officials cordoned off a block of brick rowhouses with “caution” tape and, as it came time to remove the bodies of the victims, hung a yellow tarp for privacy. Survivors and friends gathered in a circle to summon unity and strength, shouting their prayers above the incessant buzz of helicopters overhead.

At new conferences, firefighters, and even the mayor, seemed near tears.

“They was only babies,” Kia Gillis said, wiping her eyes as she looked down the 800 block of North 23rd Street, to the fire-gutted three-story duplex where her cousins had lived.

Like many across Philadelphia — from Mayor Jim Kenney to Fire Department leaders to the family, friends and neighbors in Fairmount — Gillis was struggling to process the vast scope of the tragedy that had occurred early Wednesday morning, when a fire tore through that rowhouse.

Of the 12 who died, eight were children. Their names and ages were not released, but relatives and neighbors said some attended an elementary school in the neighborhood. The youngest may have been 2.

» READ MORE: Fairmount house fire that killed 12 is one of the deadliest in decades

“I don’t have words for how we’re feeling right now, as a community and as a department,” said First Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy, one of several fire officials who described the blaze as the worst they had encountered in decades-long careers.

“I’m not doing well at all,” acknowledged Fire Capt. Derek Bowmer. “We are hurting. The city of Philadelphia is hurting right now. We lost some people today.”

At a news conference on the block, Kenney urged the community to “keep these babies in your prayers.” Not long after, he was seen slumped against a car in what seemed a posture of despair.

The mayor’s father, James Kenney Sr., was a firefighter. Kenney said that his father was racked with grief when children died on his watch.

“He would basically lock himself in his bedroom for a couple days and my mother would say, ‘Just don’t go near the door because he’s grieving,’” he said. “I think all of our firefighters, police officers, and first responders ... look at these children and these folks the way they look at their own families, and are absorbing this.”

Throughout the day, family members, friends, and neighbors milled around the area, watching the firefighters work, trading rumors and waiting for answers. Good news was in short supply.

Police chaplains offered coffee and comfort at Bache-Martin Elementary School at 22nd and Parrish Streets, where people stopped in to a makeshift response site, emerging tense-shouldered and teary-eyed.

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

Sumara Wright, 18, and Shakir Ferrell, 18, said they dropped by to ask about a friend, a 16-year-old they have known for more than a decade — and who lived in the home. “I texted him, I called him, but I ain’t get no answer,” Ferrell said.

Back at 23rd and Poplar Streets, just around the corner from the fire, Isaiah Brown, 18, tried to console family members. He said he believed his young cousins, ages 7, 10, and 16, were lost in the fire.

“It’s a total tragedy,” Brown said, digging his hands into his pockets as he contemplated the magnitude of the loss. He appeared to hold back emotion as he recalled how one of the youngest — Brown did not want to give his name — spoke optimistically of the future. “He was just on the phone telling me what he wanted to be in life. It’s sad that he won’t make it to be that,” he said.

Neighbors stood helplessly in the street, embracing one another or huddling in Mylar blankets distributed by the Salvation Army.

Others who had moved away returned to mourn with old friends. One was Mickie Goodson, 55, who grew up in the area but who now lives in West Oak Lane.

”I prayed with some of the family members,” she said. “They, of course, were devastated. Praying with the family helped me a little bit. I can’t imagine how they felt. I can’t fathom their pain, what they’re going through.”

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

By Wednesday evening, the prayer circle had widened to Zoom, where more than 300 community members, lawmakers, faith leaders, and officials gathered for a remote vigil.

“We’re a community. When one of us hurts, we all hurt,” Stephen Weeks, a pastor with Redemption City Church in the neighborhood, said on the Zoom vigil.

Back in Fairmount, a handful of mourners showed up with flowers and candles to pay respects. Northeast Philadelphia resident Donna Dodd said she had driven to Fairmount that evening, having heard a prayer vigil was planned nearby. Dodd said she felt compelled to attend.

”I’ve got kids of my own, and my heart just goes out to the family,” said Dodds, 33. “That’s one of my worst fears — a fire in the house with my kids.”

Staff writers Rodrigo Torrejón and Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.

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