The Philadelphia apartment where 12 people died in a Wednesday morning fire was not equipped with a fire extinguisher, according to inspection records obtained by The Inquirer.
The three-story rowhouse, which was split into two apartments and operated by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, had one extinguisher in a shared entryway on the first floor. But there were none in the four-bedroom upper apartment in Fairmount where 14 people shared a lease — and where heavy flames ultimately killed a dozen members of the same family.
Neither the city’s building codes nor PHA policy requires rental units of that size to have a fire extinguisher, sprinklers, fire escapes, or hardwired, tamperproof smoke detectors, according to city and PHA officials. But the new details, which emerged in reports drawn up by inspectors with the housing agency last spring, come amid questions about how the fire spread so quickly that only two people were able to escape the apartment.
It’s still unclear if any of the six smoke detectors in the unit that caught fire were operational — fire officials said at least four in the house were not. The building had no fire escape.
“There are serious questions with the fire escapability of this house,” said Andrew R. Duffy, a personal injury lawyer with the Saltz, Mongeluzzi & Bendesky firm who has worked on high-profile fire cases.
A spokesperson for the housing authority said the agency complied with the city’s fire code and the authority is legally prohibited from restricting the number of relatives who live together.
Kelvin Jeremiah, CEO of the federally funded public housing authority, said Thursday the agency is reviewing the case to evaluate its safety practices but said: “The quality of the unit was not in question, [and] the safety of the unit was not in question.”
Local and federal investigators are continuing to probe the blaze, one of the nation’s deadliest in decades, and have not announced an official cause. A 5-year-old who lived in the apartment and escaped told first responders he’d accidentally lit a Christmas tree on fire while playing with a lighter before sunrise, according to police records obtained by The Inquirer.
Officials are expected to release preliminary findings within days. On Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ national response team — made up of engineers and other fire specialists — was still stationed at the house on the 800 block of North 23rd Street. Investigators, some in hazmat suits, carried physical evidence out of the house and combed through it on the sidewalk.
Three adult sisters — Rosalee McDonald, Virginia Thomas, and Quinsha White — died in the blaze, along with nine of their children, ranging from age 2 to 16.
McDonald’s partner, Howard Robinson, was able to climb out a third-story window, and was hospitalized with severe injuries sustained when he fell. Thomas’ 5-year-old son fled through the first floor entrance.
The building’s only exits were the front and rear doors on the first floor, fire officials said.
Karl Fippinger, vice president for government relations with the International Code Council, said it’s common for older buildings like the Fairmount rowhouse, which dates to the late 19th century, to have limited means of access. The building likely would have been required to add more exit paths if it recently had major renovations, he said.
”Many of the decisions that affect the fire and life safety factors that affected the outcome here were made in the early 1900s,” Fippinger said. “The building doesn’t benefit from the things that we’ve learned from alerting residents to fire or other hazards, and does not give the same opportunity for egress and other things that we’ve learned about over time.”
PHA officials said the quality of the house’s windows and doors was deemed “appropriate” egress during its latest inspection last spring.
In addition to the 14 people listed on the lease in the upper apartment, five lived in a lower unit leased to Yvette Woods-Carter, 53, who resided there with her daughter and three grandchildren. Woods-Carter was not in the city at the time of the fire, but her daughter, a boyfriend, and grandchildren escaped and suffered minor injuries.
The multigenerational family that occupied the upper unit had first moved into the rowhouse in 2011, Jeremiah said, after they outgrew a previous PHA unit. Vanessa McDonald, the mother of the three adult sisters who died, was listed as the primary tenant in a lease that showed six residents in 2012.
That number had grown to 14 by last year, according to PHA. While that exceeds the agency’s occupancy guidelines — which recommend a maximum of eight people per four-bedroom unit — there are a handful of exceptions. Jeremiah said PHA does not evict people for having more children.
Agency inspection records from last spring showed a string of still-pending maintenance requests for both units from that time, including requests to fix deteriorating sheetrock walls and ceilings, broken light fixtures, and an inoperable stove in the upper apartment. An inspector’s note indicates an exterminator was called to deal with an unspecified pest infestation, and that a resident in the lower unit complained the building was “overwhelmed with furniture and trash in the shared yard [and] basement.”
The records from May also show maintenance workers had replaced batteries in two smoke detectors. PHA officials also said they made additional repairs in response to issues in the upper unit at that time, but did not provide documentation of maintenance requests for either apartment.
Surviving members of the family have not publicized details of any memorial services and asked for privacy. Some relatives are using social media to seek donations of clothing, food, and toys, and crowdfunding campaigns launched by family and friends have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
On Friday, rainbow-colored balloons were tied to a street sign on the block where the fire had raged and strung on a fence outside the Bache-Martin Elementary School, where some of the children who died had attended. Handwritten signs that read “We miss you” were taped to the door.
A makeshift memorial of teddy bears and prayer candles had gathered snow on the sidewalk. Behind the pile of items, the block was still cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape.