PHILADELPHIA, PA -- In front of a standing-room only crowd at Christ International Baptist Church in Southwest Philadelphia yesterday, Michelle Dosso held up the last pictures taken of her three children.
The photographs weren't school portraits or Christmas candid shots. They were from the morgue, where Dosso had just finished identifying her kids - Ramere Dosso, 8, Mariam Dosso, 6, and Zyhire Wright-Teah, 1.
"Do you want to see your child like this? I don't think so," Dosso said, to the sounds of a woman wailing from the nave. "If that's not a wake-up call to you, I don't know what would be," she continued, urging the use of smoke detectors.
Dosso's children were among seven people of Liberian descent who perished Friday in a house fire on Elmwood Avenue near 64th Street, in Southwest Philadelphia.
Later, she thanked God that her children had no severe burns on their bodies. They died from smoke and carbon monoxide inhalation, not thermal burns, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said.
"When we stopped and looked at the children, they just looked like beautiful children asleep," he said.
The fire began in the basement of the three-story house around 10:47 p.m. Within three minutes, firefighters were on the scene but they quickly realized that the only way to reach those within was to push through a wall of flames blocking the only entrance, Ayers said.
In a renovation effort, stairs from the first floor to the basement had been removed, leaving only the single outside rear entrance, he said. The windows had been screwed shut and there were no fire detectors in the house.
When firefighters made it inside, they found all but one of the victims huddled together.
"The oldest person there even had that baby huddled in his arms," Ayers said. Zyhire Wright-Teah was the only retrieved victim who responders thought might have a chance to live. He was taken to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, but he was pronounced dead a short time later.
In total, 12 people were in the basement when the fire started, five of whom managed to escape, Ayers said.
According to witnesses, the fire started when the resident of the house, Christiana Teah, improperly filled a kerosene heater.
Ayers declined to directly identify that as the cause until the fire marshal releases his findings, but he said that kerosene heaters were found on the third floor and in the basement, where the fire started.
Harris Murphy, one of those who escaped from the blaze, said that friends and relatives were gathered at the home, eating soup and watching movies.
"There was a separation of people when the fire flashed," Ayers said. "There were those who were in the front and those who were in the back.
"For those on one side, there was one escape route," he said. "The others took refuge in the front of the basement. Who was to know there was no other way out?"
Of the five who escaped, two got out unscathed. Three others were burned, including Murphy, who ran through the fire after hiding out in the shower with his friend Henry Gbokoloi, 54, and the children.
"Henry said, 'The firefighters will get us, so we will wait for them to come get us,' " Murphy said, motioning with gauze around both hands at yesterday's memorial service. "Henry said he would not leave the kids."
Besides Gbokoloi and the three children of Michelle Dosso, the others who perished were siblings Vivian Teah, 26, Elliott Teah, 23, and Jennifer Teah, 17, according to the Associated Press.
Dosso said that she is not angry at Murphy for running.
"It's common sense," she said. "He ran through the fire to get help. For those of you who think he did it to save himself, get that out of your head."
Yesterday afternoon at the scene, dozens of people of Liberian descent milled in front of the house following their respective church services, where talk of the fire dominated many sermons.
Roselyn Dogba, Gbokoloi's cousin, said that he had helped her get settled, find a job and get to work every day when she moved to Philadelphia. She said that he often helped Liberians acclimate to the city, even helping many to buy their first car.
"He was like the root for us in this place," she said.
Christiana Teah, who suffered severe burns in the fire, was separated from her husband, Alfred Teah, who was working at the airport when he got the call about the fire.
The estranged couple lost three of their four children - Vivian, Elliott and Jennifer - in the fire, along with their three grandchildren.
"The question I'm forced to ask is, 'Does He care for us to suffer?' " Alfred Teah said. "What happened here, only He alone knows why."
The Liberian community - estimated at about 15,000 in Philadelphia - is supporting the families in the aftermath of the tragedy, as is the American Red Cross.
Liberians traveled from Newark, N.J., Maryland and even Minnesota to show their support. James Moulton, a friend of the Teahs, said that that's just what they'd do back in Liberia.
"Back home, everybody joins together to solve a problem like this," he said. "But here, even your next-door neighbor considers it none of his business."
With Friday's tragedy, the fire death count for this year is 37, still down from 47 last year, Ayers said.
"But we want zero," he added. "We don't want our citizens to lose their lives and we don't want to lose our lives, either." *