Philadelphia’s deadly house fire in a public housing building took heavy tolls on the two large families living there in breach of their occupancy authorizations, according to housing officials in the City of Brotherly Love.
The blaze killed eight children and four adults, according to Philadelphia Housing Authority President Kelvin Jeremiah.
He said he could not confirm reports that the blaze broke out after a 5-year-old inside played with a lighter near a Christmas tree – after the Philadelphia Inquirer uncovered the allegation in a search warrant linked to the case.
The homes were approved for intergenerational families, he said.
Unit B had 18 people living there but only 14 authorized residents – a decade after moving into the four-bedroom unit as a six-person family. Unit A housed eight people but had been authorized for six.
“You have a grandmother who raised her three daughters,” he said. “Her three daughters are having children, and they are all living under the same roof.”
He said the family added eight children in the past decade.
City Council President Darrell Clarke added that the city previously had a stricter occupancy limit but had been sued and forced to drop it.
“The history in the city, in my understanding, is that years ago there used to be an occupancy limit,” he said. “But because of a change in the cultural diversity of our city and of our country, they got sued because other cultures believe in having intergenerational types of units.”
He also asked the public “not to stigmatize” the victims.
“So, I just ask that first and foremost, we deal with the tragedy before us,” he said. “We really need to deal with this family to make this family whole to deal with these children and to deal with this community because this community is also hurting.”
Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Pennsylvania, said during the same news briefing that federal assistance was coming. Both the Department of Housing and Urban Development and ATF were involved in the case.
The city has about 4,000 similarly built homes, according to Jeremiah. But he plugged Washington Democrats’ Build Back Better proposal as a way of building more housing units in the city.
“This is what we need to make a difference here in Philadelphia to address the affordable housing crisis that confronts us,” he said. “It would be the most significant investment in affordable housing in more than three generations.”
Jeremiah had said that the homes’ smoke and carbon monoxide detectors were fully functional during the most recent inspections in April and May. And the 10-year lithium ion batteries inside were relatively new. They were the same kind of detectors that Jeremiah said he has in his own home.
“As far as I know at the time that we did our inspections, this equipment was fully operational,” Jeremiah said. “And the family, in fact, attested to that in signing the inspection reports.”
But authorities said Wednesday that the devices were not functioning at the time of the fire.
The president also said that any PHA tenants who need new smoke detector batteries can contact the city’s customer response center.
At around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, Philadelphia firefighters were dispatched to the scene. They encountered thick smoke and limited visibility.
At least two of the eight survivors were hospitalized.
Fox News’ Paul Best contributed to this report.