PHILADELPHIA — Neighbors, awakened by screams, looked out their windows at the cold dark morning. Flames were pouring out of the second-story windows of a rowhouse on 23rd Street as people on the block watched in horror.
Firefighters arrived just before sunrise and fought the blaze for nearly an hour. They discovered what neighbors had feared: There had been people inside, a lot of them.
Twelve were killed in the fire, including eight children, according to the Philadelphia mayor’s office. Craig Murphy, the deputy fire commissioner, said that two others who were hurt were taken to nearby hospitals.
At a news conference down the street from the charred building, Mayor Jim Kenney, the son of a firefighter, seemed almost at a loss for words. “This is, without a doubt, one of the most tragic days in our city’s history,” he said. “Losing so many kids is just devastating.”
As the sun set on Wednesday, Jacuita Purifoy stood before reporters on the street and said that three of her sisters were among the dead, along with her nieces and nephews.
“I’ve been in and out of conscious all day,” said Ms. Purifoy, who heard the news at around 7 a.m. The only member of the family who lived in the building that Ms. Purifoy knew to have survived was a 5-year-old boy. He was in a hospital in stable condition, she said, and asking about his family.
“They was somebody,” Ms. Purifoy said of her sisters. “They was relevant, they was somebody who was supposed to continue life and die at an old age, not from stuff that could have been avoided.”
Officials said they did not yet know the cause of the fire, though an investigation was underway. It was among the deadliest residential fires in the country’s recent history, including a 2019 fire that killed five children at a day care center in Erie, Pa., and a 2018 fire at an apartment building in Chicago that left 10 children dead.
The century-old, three-story brick rowhouse belonged to the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which bought it in 1967, according to property records. It had been divided into two units: one on the first floor and half of the second; the other sharing the second floor and taking up the third. Altogether, Mr. Murphy said, it appeared that 26 people were in the building at the time of the fire, eight in the lower unit and 18 in the upper one.
“That is a tremendous amount of people to be living in a duplex,” said Mr. Murphy, though he emphasized that this was not a definitive number. He said that eight people who were in the building escaped the fire on their own.
The city had initially reported the death toll as 13, including seven children, but revised both figures on Wednesday evening.
An official with the housing authority said it was unclear why so many people were in the building. This would have been “too high” a number of occupants for an apartment, Dinesh Indala, the executive vice president for housing operations at the housing authority, told reporters. He did not specify how many people could legally live in the unit, and also cautioned that much was still unknown about who was inside at the time of the fire.
“It’s the holidays,” he said. “I don’t know if they had people coming and visiting. I have no idea.”
Jenna Collins, a housing lawyer with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, said the maximum occupancy for the largest units operated by the housing authority was 12 people. But she said that complications of life can render the rules less than hard-and-fast at times; for example, if a person in a unit suddenly gains custody of several children, the family is typically not evicted while waiting for a larger place to open up.
In any case, as the mayor and others cautioned, it was too early to make any judgments about the living arrangements in the apartment.
“You don’t know the circumstances of each and every family,” Mr. Kenney said at the news conference. “Maybe there were people or relatives that needed to be sheltered.”
Mr. Murphy said that the apartments had smoke detectors but of those that responders found, “none of them operated.”
Both apartments had been inspected by the housing authority within the past year, officials said. In a statement, Kelvin Jeremiah, the president of the housing authority, said that all smoke detectors had been found to be working when the property was inspected in May 2021.
Officials said it was too early to say why they apparently did not work on Wednesday — a problem that has apparently bedeviled the housing authority for some time.
“I don’t know if they were replaced or tampered with — we have no idea,” Mr. Indala said.
Darrell L. Clarke, the president of the Philadelphia City Council, said that larger public housing complexes in the city require hard-wired smoke detectors, but that these were battery-operated.
Mr. Clarke represents the district where the fire happened and said that several of the children who died were students at a nearby elementary school, where families gathered on Wednesday morning.
“It is really a gut punch, not only to the family members but to the community and the city of Philadelphia,” he said.
Fairmount is a mostly gentrified neighborhood of modest brick rowhouses that sits north and east of some of the city’s most prestigious museums and just south of Brewerytown, a poorer neighborhood. For some living on the block where the fire broke out, the morning unfolded in a series of shocks: the blaze itself, the death toll and the discoveries about the lives of their neighbors.
“I had no idea there were that many people in the building,” said Laurie Roma, 44, who lives across the street from the blaze and had awakened to the sound of screaming. “I knew there were kids that resided in the home. I knew it was a P.H.A. home. And I just was hoping that everyone got out.”
She said that she had tried calling 911 that morning but no one answered, and that a neighbor also said there had been trouble getting through. A spokesman for the city said 911 had received the first calls about the fire at 6:36 a.m. and fielded dozens of calls after that. The first firefighters arrived on the scene at 6:40.
But for 12 people it was already too late.
“We just were, you know, coming together stronger than previous,” Ms. Purifoy said on Wednesday evening. The family had recently lost their father, she said, which had brought them even closer. “We always stayed together because we were a family. We weren’t just, you know, people that’s just out here saying, ‘Oh that’s my cousin, that’s my sister’ and then they don’t know what’s going on in each other’s life.”
Up the street from the burned-out building, Sumara Wright, 18, stood outside the elementary school, having walked over that morning to pick up laptops for her siblings so they could work remotely. A teacher told her about the fire, and that one of the victims was Ms. Wright’s close friend and classmate. He and his siblings had been in the building that morning.
“It was heartbreaking,” Ms. Wright said. “I had just seen him two days ago riding his bike.”
Reporting was contributed by Maria Cramer, Amanda Holpuch, Neil Vigdor, Jesus Jiménez and Alan Yuhas. Kitty Bennett contributed research.