A portable heater burning either kerosene or gasoline in a home without smoke detectors sparked a blaze that killed seven people - four of them children - late Friday night in Southwest Philadelphia, fire authorities and eyewitnesses said.
The fire erupted in a basement social room of a three-story duplex at 6418 Elmwood Ave. where a group of adults was watching the Bourne Ultimatum, a spy thriller, while the children slept on the floor, said one of the adults who escaped, Harris Murphy, 35, a Liberian immigrant.
Christiana Teah, a woman who lived at the property and was renovating the basement, was pouring fuel into the heater when it exploded, according to Murphy. He and Teah, as well as two other adults, escaped through the only exit, which was then blocked by the burning heater, and Murphy called 911. The staircase to the rest of the house had been removed as part of a house renovation, officials said.
Murphy said his close friend, Henry Gbokoloi, 54, who perished in the blaze, tried to lead those who remained in the basement to a bathroom shower, which he thought would protect them from the flames.
But City Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said six victims were found huddled together outside the bathroom toward the front of the basement. The seventh, an 18-month-old boy found near the exit, was taken to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where he died.
"We feel real tough about that," Ayers said.
Ayers said three others were hospitalized. Murphy was treated and released. Teah - apparently hosting some type of holiday gathering - was treated and left the hospital, only to be re-hospitalized this morning. A third victim was in serious but stable condition at Chester Crozier Medical Center.
Ayers said the owner of the property was at work and not present when the fire erupted. According to the Board of Revisions of Taxes, the owner, Amelia Moiyallah, bought the home two years ago.
"This was a very, very catastrophic fire," Ayers said.
Inza Dosso, 47, a Philadelphia parking attendant who immigrated from the Ivory Coast, said his two children, a daughter, Mariam, 7, and a son, Ramere, 8, were among the four children who perished.
According to the children's mother, Michelle Dosso, she left the children with Teah's 24-year-old son, Elliott, who she was dating. (Michelle and Inza Dosso are separated). She said she was unaware that Elliott Teah had taken them to visit his mother.
Michelle Dosso was not present when the fire broke out. Inza Dosso said he last saw his children on Wednesday. "I give to them the gifts," Dosso said. "Clothes and everything they need."
The 18-month-old toddler was the child of Michelle Dosso and Elliott Teah.
While city police and fire officials have yet to identify any of the victims by name, according to Christiana Teah's estranged husband, Alfred, Elliott Teah was also killed, along with his two sisters, Vivian, 26, and Jennifer, 17.
For much of yesterday, several dozen members of Philadelphia's tight-knit Liberian community - estimates put their number in and around Philadelphia, including Upper Darby, at over 15,000 - lingered near the home.
Many shed tears as a picture of Mariam and Ramere Dosso, taken at a birthday party in the last year, was passed around.
Just before 11 a.m., the air damp with a misty rain, about a dozen men and women stood in a circle on the sidewalk in front of the home, held hands and prayed.
"We will understand it better by and by," they sang.
"Thank you, Jesus!" said one man. "Out of every evil thing, God will turn it around and bring us something good."
Charlene Rawlinson, who runs a day care center next door to the fire-ravaged home, said the woman renovating the basement had lived there for about a year. Rawlinson said a picture of Jesus is visible in the charred ruins of the home's first floor, undamaged.
A previous owner of the house, Mike Kingwood, said he sold it two years ago to an owner who did considerable renovations, adding at least three bedrooms and a bathroom to make it a nine-bedroom home.
Ayers said the fire did not appear to have been set, but the cause was still under investigation. He said that kerosene heaters were found in several locations in the home and that an absence of smoke detectors appeared to have exacerbated the tragedy.
The blaze was reported at 10:47 p.m. in the 6400 block of Elmwood Avenue. Firefighters were on the scene within three minutes and had the fire under control in 33 minutes, Ayers said, but even that was too late to save six of the victims, who died at the scene. The toddler died just before midnight at CHOP.
The sheer number of casualties prompted Mayor Nutter to visit the scene after midnight, where he viewed the charred, three-story brick structure and mourned the loss of life.
"We are very saddened by this," Nutter said. "Firefighters put forth a tremendous effort, but this fire moved tremendously quickly."
No firefighters were injured. Six residents of an adjacent home were displaced by the fire, Ayers said, and had been taken in by the Red Cross. He said they should be able to return to their home soon.
The fire appeared to have started in the basement, Ayers said, and ate its way up through stairwells and walls to the third story.
"We have not found any smoke alarms at all, which we are very saddened by," he said. "We found kerosene heaters in the basement (and) on the third floor. Outside of that, you see what people have when they are living their lives in a holiday season: pictures, the Holy Bible, clothes stacked...."
One victim was found near the basement exit in the rear of the house, where the fire appeared to have been the most intense. The other six in the basement were not burned, Ayers said, but appeared to have suffered from smoke inhalation while huddling together at the other end of the room.
"It's a horrific sight," he said.
According to the fire marshal's office, the seven dead from last night's tragedy increased the total number of fire deaths to 37 for the year, compared to 47 by this date last year. Fire deaths have been decreasing in recent decades because of improved fire prevention strategies and milder winter weather, allowing residential occupants to avoid using risky home-heating methods.
"You need to have a home escape plan, and you can't have a home escape plan from a basement with only one exit. ... We believe there was not proper egress from the basement," the fire commissioner said.
The house was not a rental property.
Ayers said the fire department will supply smoke alarms to any city residents who request them. He urged people to equip every floor of their homes with at least one detector, and to use electric and kerosene space heaters with caution.
"Wintertime," he said, "is a tough time not to be safe."