A fatal error of pouring gasoline instead of kerosene into a heater caused the blaze that killed seven in a Southwest Philadelphia house fire on Friday, Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said yesterday.
Ayers said a report from the fire marshal confirmed what firefighters at the scene had suspected.
"There was an instant fire," Ayers said. "Those folks went from looking at television to instant peril. . . . It was pandemonium all of a sudden."
The fire started at 10:47 p.m. Friday and required 53 firefighters to contain in 36 minutes.
Seven people died, two were taken to hospitals, and six residents from an adjoining property were displaced.
Ayers said investigators believed that one of the victims - Vivian Teah, 26, who was visiting family from Maryland - had purchased five gallons of gasoline that day.
Ayers said it was unclear whether the family was using kerosene heat because the gas heat in the house had been turned off. "We were told the heat worked," Ayers said.
As fire investigators completed their review, more details began to emerge from victims' relatives and friends.
Six of the seven victims were visiting Christiana Teah, a Liberian immigrant who had moved to the area recently from Washington.
Teah was hospitalized at Temple University Hospital and released over the weekend with burns to the back of her hands and bruises on her face.
"She's in shock right now," said Selecia Harris, a friend from the local Liberian community. Teah was estranged from her husband, Alfred Teah, also a Liberian immigrant who has lived for some time in West Philadelphia.
Alfred Teah, who was not present during the fire, said his wife had told him she was injured "when she came running back into the building to see if she could rescue the kids and she banged her face against the door."
When approached yesterday at Alfred Teah's home, Christiana Teah declined to answer questions from an Inquirer reporter.
Alfred Teah said in a telephone interview earlier in the day that his wife rented a room in the house. "She just moved in a month and a half ago," he said.
He said she was trying to pour fuel into a kerosene heater "when the flame became so big, she grabbed it to take it out, and it exploded."
Three of the victims were children of the couple - Vivian; Elliott, 23; and Jennifer, 17 - and one was a grandson, 1-year-old Zyhire Wright-Teah. The other two young victims were the baby's half-siblings, Ramere, 8, and Mariam Dosso, 6.
Also killed was Henry Gbokoloi, 54.
The tragedy has rocked the local Liberian community. Five of the seven victims were of Liberian descent.
"It's part of our culture," said Shiwoh Kamara, president of the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania. "If something happens to one person, it happens to all of us."
Two fund-raising efforts are under way. The Liberian Association is collecting donations to help the families of victims through Wachovia Bank, Kamara said.
Separately, a fund to help pay for the burials of Michelle Dosso's three children - Zyhire Wright-Teah and Ramere and Mariam Dosso - has been set up at the University City branch of TD Bank.
"We want to thank everyone out there for their love and support," Dosso said.
She said she had agreed with Alfred Teah that since her three children died with his three children, they should be buried together.
Originally, plans were under way for a Saturday funeral. But Christiana Dosso has requested more time to accommodate relatives who may have to travel from far away, Selecia Harris said.
A new date has not been set, pending a decision by family members, Dosso said.
A question that remained unanswered yesterday was whether the big three-story house was occupied by one family or rented to many individuals.
The answer would dictate which type of building code would apply to the property, said Ayers, the fire commissioner.
Ayers said the department was investigating living arrangements in the house with the city's Licenses and Inspections Department. "That's another part of the investigation," Ayers said.
He said regulations for a dwelling that houses many people were more stringent than those for a single-family home.
"There are things you have to have, things you can or cannot do," Ayers said. "If you have a boarding situation or apartments, absolutely they are much more strict."
He added that the department believed "there may be some violations there."
Ayers said the fire marshal had spoken to the owner of the building, Amelia Moiyallah.
Attempts by The Inquirer to reach Moiyallah by phone were unsuccessful.
Her brother, Mayango, said in a telephone interview that his sister lived at 6418 Elmwood Ave. with a younger brother, whom he declined to identify. He did not know where she had been staying since the fire.
He also said he did not know if she rented rooms at the house.
Mayango Moiyallah said his sister works at the Four Seasons Hotel, but he said he did not know what she did.
Since the tragedy, the Fire Department has distributed kerosene-heater safety tips to residents of Elmwood Avenue. The department also said it would install smoke alarms in homes in the immediate area of the fire.
At nightfall yesterday, neighbors were planning to gather for a prayer vigil for the victims outside the charred building.
Alfred Teah recalled that his son Elliott had just got off work from the Home Depot in South Philadelphia on Friday when he heard his older sister was visiting her mother with his son and the other children.
He said Elliott decided at the last minute to visit them.
On Sunday, Alfred Teah went to the morgue to identify Elliott and his daughters. He said he was only shown their photographs and not their bodies.
"We were all overcome with emotion and had to leave," he said.