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Deadly Philadelphia Rowhouse Fire Raises Question of “Did This Have to Happen?”

January 7, 2022

As Philadelphians mourn the deaths of 12 people, including nine children, who died in the early morning house fire on January 5, all eyes will turn to whether this horrific tragedy could have been prevented.

What’s known at this time from news reports is that the fire erupted at a row home owned by the Philadelphia Housing authority (PHA), which leases homes to Philadelphians with lower incomes. The home, located in the Fairmount area of the city, was built around 1920, and was legally subdivided into two apartments in 1950. More than 20 people were reportedly staying at the building at the time of the fire. Philadelphia Housing Authority president and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah told the news media that the tenants of the upper-story apartment where the fire began moved into the unit in 2011 as a family of six. As their family grew, they updated the lease over the years to include 14 family members. “Our policies and procedures do not evict people because they have children. We don’t remove them because their families are growing. The absurdity of that notion, I think, is self-explanatory,” he said. Jeremiah said that the “intact family” should not be blamed for the fire.

The victims who lost their lives reportedly were three sisters and nine of their 10 children. A family of five that lived in the lower-level apartment all managed to escape, according to news reports.

Fire officials said that although there were six battery-operated smoke detectors installed in the home, none of them worked at the time of the blaze. PHA said that the property was last inspected in May 2021, and at that time the smoke detectors worked properly. The property had no sprinkler system or fire escapes. Newer PHA properties have hard-wired smoke detectors, rather than battery-operated ones, and high-rise buildings also have sprinkler systems, Jeremiah said. “For us to upgrade all of our scattered site units, all of our older developments, it requires huge investments,” he told the news media. “These are aging housing stock that some of which dates back to the 1940s.”

Investigators are looking into whether the blaze was started by a 5-year-old child who was playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree. The child, who escaped from the home, reportedly told multiple people at the scene, and later at the hospital, that he had accidentally ignited the tree.

Did the Fire Have to Be So Deadly?

For more than three decades, Feldman Shepherd attorneys Alan M. Feldman and Mark W. Tanner have investigated and pursued claims on behalf of victims of preventable fires. They said that all landlords, including PHA, are required by law to maintain safe property conditions. They said that irrespective of whether a child may have accidentally started the fire, PHA has a legal duty to make certain that the homes and apartments it rents to low-income Philadelphians are furnished with necessary safety equipment, including working smoke detectors, CO2 detectors and fire extinguishers. Fresh batteries should be installed and checked at periodic intervals. Upper floors should have exit arrangements (i.e., fire escapes), and fire doors and barriers should be part of the housing structure to protect building occupants from the spread of fire.

As PHA owns and leases thousands of rowhouses, Feldman and Tanner said that a full investigation into whether PHA exercised all appropriate safety measures is critical to ensuring that this never happens again. They support the commitment that PHA, the Philadelphia Fire Department and national responders have made to that regard.

“This terrible fire caused the death of 12 members of just one family,” said Feldman. “A prompt and comprehensive investigation is necessary to help us understand how this happened so we can prevent future tragedies.”

“Fire safety is too often overlooked by landlords and manufacturers, and at the end of the day, it is families and children that pay the terrible price for entities and individuals that don’t make fire safety a priority. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims,” Tanner said.

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Notable results that Feldman Shepherd has achieved for victims of deadly fires include:

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