Fatal Philadelphia fire likely started with a lighter igniting a Christmas tree, fire commissioner says

Fatal Philadelphia fire likely started with a lighter igniting a Christmas tree, fire commissioner says
Matt Rourke/AP

It’s a “near certainty” that a Philadelphia duplex fire that claimed 12 lives was started by a lighter igniting a Christmas tree on the second floor of the building, city Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said Tuesday.

Theil said that one of their sources of information, in combination with an exhaustive investigation, was a 5-year-old child who survived the fire. “We believe with certainty, so 99 to 100% confidence, that the first item ignited in this blaze was a Christmas tree,” Thiel said.

“We believe with near certainty, based on the evidence, that the ignition source for that tree was a lighter that was located nearby.”

While he said the child was a witness and gave a version of events, they cannot say definitively who started the fire. Investigators found that the child was the only person on the second floor where the tree and lighter were found when the blaze started, Thiel added.

“So we are left with the words of that 5-year-old child, that traumatized 5-year-old child, to help us understand how the lighter and the tree came together with tragic consequences,” Thiel told reporters.

“Because we have disproved any other theories or hypotheses, based on the incredible level of expertise that we brought including ATF national response team and all the other partners that contributed to this investigation.”

“What we know for sure is the tree, the next thing we know, pretty sure, near certainty, is the lighter,” he said. “And again we are left with the words of this 5-year-old.”

Firefighters responded to the blaze at around 6:40 a.m. last Wednesday at the three-story row house, which had been legally divided into two apartments, officials said.

Responders found “heavy fire” in a kitchen area at the front of the second floor of the building, officials said.

There was “nothing slowing that fire from moving,” said Philadelphia Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy, who told reporters during a news conference Thursday that city police and the ATF Philadelphia branch were assisting with the investigation.

The home is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, a municipal agency that leases homes to people with low income.

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