Hundreds gathered to commemorate the 12 victims of the Philadelphia fire

PHILADELPHIA – Family members of 12 people who died in a fire in Philadelphia’s ranks gathered on Thursday on the steps of the local elementary school, sobbing and hugging in the evening cold. Hundreds of people stood in silence as one of the family members reported the death toll: three sisters and nine of their sons and daughters.

Investigators investigating the fire find out the possibility that the fire was caused by a child who was playing with a lighter at the Christmas tree, according to an application for an arrest warrant, which was submitted to the state court.

The application for a court order, previously reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer and confirmed by a district attorney’s spokesman, was necessary for police investigators to gain access to the apartment. Officials said on Thursday that the investigation was just beginning and that no conclusions had been drawn.

Much remains unknown about the fire that burned the upper floors of a three-story townhouse in the Fairmount neighborhood on Wednesday morning, just before sunrise. Investigators said very little, except that they reported that several agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, were investigating.

Philadelphia Housing Authority officials who own the building spoke to reporters on Thursday about why there were 18 people in the upper four-bedroom apartment at the time of the fire.

When the family moved into the apartment in 2011, said Kelvin Jeremiah, president and chief executive officer of the housing office, there were six. Ten years later, Mr Jeremiah said, the family had grown to 14, the number of people who are allowed to live there under the current lease.

He attributed the fact that there were probably four more people in the apartment at the time of the fire to the holidays. “This is the time of year when the family meets,” Mr Jeremiah said. “We will not criticize families who have suffered this unimaginable loss.”

In the streets of the neighborhood on Thursday, people who watched the arrivals and departures of the population for years remembered families, and especially all children.

“They were number one people,” said Ramon Antonio Correa, who owns Papy Deli’s grocery store, where a combination of children stopped almost every day and often bought meat and cheese to bring home to their mothers.

Donald Dennison, who had worked as a cashier at the nearest subway station for decades, remembered the children announcing their arrival with shouting and roaring.

“One would come, pay and push a button, one of the adults.” And then suddenly the children came up, “he said. “When I heard that, I was overwhelmed because I knew it – I said, ‘Wait, it’s a group!’

But of course there were children and adults with different stories and personalities in that group. While the city doctor did not publish the names of the dead, many in the neighborhood already knew.

One of the children was Destiny McDonald, who was quieter and more reserved than the others, said Andre Wright, who coached her in basketball.

“To know her was to love her, and a lot of people didn’t really know her – she kind of closed herself to a lot of people,” he said. But for those she let in, she was a “beacon of light.”

Mrs. McDonald’s father often went to basketball games and encouraged her, then shook Mr. Wright’s hand. “He always thanked us and said how grateful he was that they were two brothers from the neighborhood,” he said. “He was very adamant that we were from the neighborhood and helping the children from the neighborhood.”

Since the fire, Bache-Martin Elementary School has served as a community center – where families in mourning gathered, where officials spoke, and where hundreds met for Thursday night’s vigil. Quintien Tate-McDonald, 16, one of the victims, went to school there and returned after graduating, part-time and cleaning the yard. He kept up with his teachers, including Kristin Luebbert, who taught him seventh grade.

“As much as you love all your children, he was one of those truly memorable children you will never forget,” she said.

Ms Luebbert, who started teaching at Bache-Martin in 2001 and has since left, said many of her students’ families tried to stay in the neighborhood as living costs rose. During the decades she lived there, she watched the shops on the corner close and families reluctantly move to more affordable parts of the city.

She wondered if affection for the neighborhood was why Mr. Tate-McDonald’s family decided to pack into the same apartment instead of trying to move to a larger unit. “I’m sure they loved the neighborhood,” she said, “and realized how easy it was as a place for children and families.”

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