City Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said yesterday the removal of a basement stairway that might have enabled the escape of seven people killed in a fire late Friday in Southwest Philadelphia did not appear to be a code violation.
Though the official cause of the fire has not been announced, it appears a mishandled kerosene heater set off an inferno that trapped the seven victims, who could not flee out the finished basement's single back door. A year-old child was the only one found still alive, but he died within an hour at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Ayers has decried the absence of smoke alarms in the three-story twin on Elmwood Avenue, but it appears that alarms could not have averted the tragic results of the flash fire.
The Fire Marshal's Office had not completed its investigation yesterday, Ayers said. He and police officials said they were waiting to see whether the marshal's report would find any criminal negligence or code violations beyond the absence of smoke alarms.
Fire officials have said a stairway leading to the upper floors of the house had been removed during recent renovations, leaving only the basement rear exit.
In a rental property with tenants living in the basement, that would be a code violation, Ayers said. In a private, owner-occupied house where no rent is charged, it is not. "You actually could take the stairway out, as long as you had a way out, and that way out led to a street access," Ayers said. The door from the basement opens to an alley leading to 65th Street.
That assessment, however, could change if the investigation shows that the homeowner was collecting rent from some of the occupants.
Witnesses have said a woman was refilling a kerosene space heater in the basement when it burst into flames. Three adults and four children ranging in age from 17 to 1 died.
Two adults remained hospitalized with burns, Ayers said.
The front of the charred house served as a shrine yesterday for the victims, who were of Liberian descent. Dozens of stuffed animals lay stacked beneath yellow police tape, and mourners from the local West African community milled about, alternately weeping and smiling at memories of their friends. A handwritten sign on red construction paper read: "Liberian community say Sorry. Missing! See in Heaven."
The gray Honda sedan of one of the adult victims, who had come from Maryland to visit her parents for Christmas, remained parked in front of the house. The owner of the house, Amelia Moiyallah, was at work when the fire erupted shortly before 11 p.m. Friday, Ayers said. Efforts to contact her yesterday were not successful, but the fire commissioner said it appeared she lived in the house.
Ayers and a former owner of the house said Moiyallah had made extensive renovations to the property since buying it late in 2006. Ayers said a center stairway that led from the basement to each of the three upper floors had apparently been removed during the work.
Two men who said they visited the house on Thanksgiving could not recall seeing any evidence of construction work in the basement. Patrick Kennedy, 50, of Upper Darby, and Ed Tulay, 49, of Folcroft, said the basement was furnished with chairs, two tables, carpeting and a TV set.
"Everything was finished," Tulay said, recalling new, painted drywall. Kennedy said he believed a drop ceiling had been installed.
Both men said they had gone that day at the invitation of Christiana Teah, a friend who lived in the house with her husband, Alfred. Witnesses said Christiana Teah was the woman filling the heater when it ignited.
Three of the Teahs' children - Vivian, 26; Elliott, 23; and Jennifer, 17; and their year-old grandson, Zyhire Wright-Teah were killed. Also killed were Henry Gbokoloi, 54; Ramere Dosso, 8; and Mariam Dosso, 6. The Dosso children were the half-siblings of the Teahs' grandson.
The relationship between the Teahs and Moiyallah, the homeowner, remained unclear yesterday. That relationship is crucial to the investigation, because a different set of code standards would apply if the Teahs were paying rent to Moiyallah, Ayers said. "They can have as many friends and family inside as they wished," he said. "The restriction would be if [the homeowner] charged anything" for the use of the house.
Michelle Dosso, mother of the three children who perished in the fire, said in an interview yesterday that the owner of the house was renting it out. Asked about that, Ayers said that he was still awaiting the fire marshal's report, which he expected today, but that any lease involving people living in the basement would be a problem. "That will be information that will be key to the investigation," he said.
Asked whether the code requirements were sufficient, Ayers said, "The codes are never enough; this is about education, too."
He said he could neither confirm nor deny reports that children buying fuel for the heater might have mistakenly bought gasoline instead of kerosene.
Ayers added that kerosene heaters should be refilled outside only, and only after they have been allowed to cool.
Ayers delivered his comments as he arrived for a late-afternoon community gathering at Christ International Baptist Church on South 65th Street, where about 300 people gathered to mourn, raise money, and hear him preach fire safety. At the lectern, Ayers was emotional and evangelical, quoting Scripture and asking the Liberian community to "build into your culture a fire-safety consciousness."
When Ayers told the gathering "you are my brothers and sisters," he had to pause to compose himself. "I apologize, but they are precious," he said. "Every life is precious."
Ayers said firefighters were shaken up by the scene, as was Mayor Nutter, who arrived and asked to go inside before the bodies were taken to the morgue. Three of the victims - Gbokoloi and two of the children, Ramere and Mariam - were huddled in the shower, holding one another.
"We just looked at beautiful little children who were sleeping," Ayers said.
That was the lone consolation for Michelle Dosso, that her three children - Ramere, Mariam and Zyhire Wright-Teah - all died from smoke inhalation, without being touched by flames.
"Praise God, none of them had a burn on them," said Dosso, who jolted the congregants at Christ International last night with photos of her children's faces from the morgue, their faces unmarked, their eyes closed, as family members began to wail.
"If that's not a wake-up call for you," Dosso said, "nothing is."
Dosso said Gbokoloi, who tried to protect her children by turning on the shower, had "always told me, 'As long as those kids are around, I won't leave their side.' "Funerals for six of the victims are planned for Saturday. The funeral for Gbokoloi, of Yeadon, had not been set.
Assistance to the families is being organized by the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania, whose president, Shiwoh Kamara, told the audience that, in times of need, "Liberians will always stand together. This is our tradition, this is our culture."