Child may have started Philadelphia house blaze by igniting Christmas tree

Firefighters at the scene of a blaze that overwhelmed a crowded Philadelphia rowhouse on Jan 6, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

PHILADELPHIA (REUTERS) - A five-year-old likely started a Philadelphia row house fire that killed a dozen people by setting a Christmas tree ablaze with a lighter, the city's top fire official said on Tuesday (Jan 11), citing preliminary findings of an investigation.

The child, one of just two survivors, was the only person on the second floor at the time the tree was ignited early last Wednesday, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said. The boy told police he had been playing with a lighter when the fire erupted, local media reported, citing a search warrant.

"We believe with certainty, so 99 to 100 per cent confidence, that the first item ignited in this blaze was a Christmas tree" on the second floor, Commissioner Thiel said at a news conference, adding that a lighter was found nearby.

"We are left with the words of that five-year-old child, that traumatised five-year-old child, to help us understand how the lighter and the tree came together with tragic consequences," Mr Thiel said.

He said seven smoke alarms were found in the building, but only one of them sounded as the fire spread. Four of them were found in drawers, one was found on the floor with its battery removed, and another was attached to a ceiling with its battery also being removed. The alarm that had activated was in the basement but its alerts came late.

The fire department classified the fire as incendiary, saying it believed "there was some type of human intervention to bring the ignition source to the first item ignited".

The fire broke out around 6.30am local time on the second floor of a three-storey row house in the city's Fairmont neighbourhood. The building is owned by the federally funded Philadelphia Housing Authority, the fourth-largest housing authority in the United States.

The tragedy - along with a fire in New York City on Sunday that claimed the lives of 17 people, including eight children - has stirred questions on safety standards in low-income city housing in the US.

Philadelphia fire officials said the building was overcrowded, with about two dozen people inside a structure meant to accommodate two families.

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