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, 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 on 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% confidence, that the first item ignited in this blaze was a Christmas tree” on the second floor, Thiel said at a news conference, adding that a lighter was found nearby.
“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 said.
Thiel 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 6:30 a.m. (1130 GMT) on the second floor of a three-story row house in the city's Fairmont neighborhood. The building is owned by the federally funded Philadelphia Housing Authority, the fourth-largest housing authority in the United States.
The catastrophe - 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 United States.
Philadelphia fire officials said the building was overcrowded, with about two dozen people inside a structure meant to accommodate two families.