Philadelphia Fire Started When Boy, 5, Ignited Christmas Tree

City officials said Tuesday that the fire that broke out in a Philadelphia home last Wednesday, and killed 12 people, including eight children, was caused by a 5-year-old boy lighting a Christmas tree with a lighter.

The fire broke out before dawn, and quickly engulfed the second floor of a brick house in the city’s Fairmount neighborhood. The 5-year-old, who is one of two people who survived in the apartment, told police last week that he was playing with a lighter to form the first theory about the cause of the fire.

Investigators looked for other possible sources of the fire, but determined that the child was the only person in the part of the apartment where the fire started, Adam K. Till, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner, said at a news conference.

“We left the words of that 5-year-old, that 5-year-old who was traumatized, to help us understand how the lighter and the tree combined with tragic consequences,” Commissioner Thiel said. “We’ve disproved any other theories.”

There were 14 people in the apartment at the time – not 18, officials originally said – and all but the 5-year-old were in the bedrooms on the third floor. Twelve residents of the apartment died, including three sisters and nine sons and daughters. Two people, including the 5-year-old child and a man who climbed out of a third-floor window, were taken to hospital with injuries.

The Row House was one of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s “scattered sites” properties, places across the city that are owned and operated by the authority but are not part of larger public housing complexes. It was divided into two units: an upper unit where the fire broke out, and a lower unit housing eight people, all of whom survived.

Housing Authority officials said last week that an upstairs apartment was inspected in May, and that all smoke alarms, which were powered by batteries, were found to be operating at the time.

At Tuesday’s news conference, Commissioner Thiel said investigators found seven smoke alarms in the unit after the fire. Four were found in the drawers. One was found on the ground, its battery removed; And another installed on the ceiling, and its battery removed as well. The seventh alarm, which was in a basement shared between the two units, was activated, but its alerts came too late, given how quickly the fire spread to the upper floors.

The tragedy brought renewed attention to the acute shortage of quality housing for low-income people in the city and across the country. The waiting list for new public housing units in Philadelphia, a city with a large population below the poverty line, is up to 40,000 families and has been closed for nearly a decade.

The extended family had moved into a row apartment in 2011, having grown up on a smaller home elsewhere in public housing. Since the move, the number of occupants on the lease has increased from six to 14 as two of the sisters have given birth to more children. While some family members have told friends and social workers they want to move, officials at the Housing Authority say no one in the apartment has formally requested a new place.

City officials emphasized that residences in Philadelphia are old and in need of updating to modern safety standards, such as smoke alarms that are wired into the building. This requires a significant amount of spending, which is money the agency doesn’t have, said Kelvin Jeremiah, director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

“This incident highlights the basic fact that there is, in fact, an affordable housing crisis in the city,” he said on Tuesday.

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