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The lighter was being played with by a five-year-old before the tree went up in flames.
The lighter was being played with by a five-year-old before the tree went up in flames. Photo: Brittany Valentine/AL DÍA News.

Preliminary report reveals lighter ignited Christmas tree in deadly Fairmount fire

The lighter was being played with by a five-year-old before the tree went up in flames.

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In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Jan. 5, the Philadelphia Fire Department responded to a fire coming from the second floor of a three-story row home in the Fairmount section of the city. 

On Tuesday, Jan. 11, city officials shared a preliminary report on their findings from the investigation into that fire in the city’s Fairmount section that claimed 12 lives. 

“After a careful and exhaustive investigation by the fire marshal's office with crucial support from the ATF and others, we’re here to explain the preliminary findings into the cause of the fire. This update is not going to be easy to share nor is it going to be easy to hear,” said Mayor Jim Kenney in his opening remarks. 

Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said that investigators “believe with certainty” that a Christmas tree was the first item ignited in the fire. They also believe with “near certainty” that the ignition source was a lighter.

“That leaves us with the words of a traumatized five-year-old,” Thiel said. 

As reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, the child told authorities he was playing with a lighter and mistakenly set the tree on fire. Thiel says the child, one of just two survivors from that unit, was the only person on the second floor at the time.

This determination was based on what Thiel called an “exhaustive” examination of nearby electrical outlets, debris left behind, and other evidence from the scene. 

"Fire conditions were not what you see on television. There was zero visibility, high heat — and by high heat, I'm talking about 900-1000 degrees at the ceiling - toxic smoke filling the entire building, and it's loud in a fire,” Thiel explained. 

He said investigators also found seven non-functioning smoke alarms in the unit where the deadly fire occurred. Three of the alarms were in a kitchen drawer, another was found in a bedroom drawer.

Thiel then turned the podium over to Kelvin Jeremiah, President and CEO of Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA). Jeremiah started out by giving thanks to Mayor Kenney for his “unwavering support” of PHA, and to the fire department and ATF for conducting a swift and thorough examination. 

“At PHA, our highest priority remains making sure that the surviving members' needs are taken care of. As an organization, we’re committed to evaluating our policies and procedures and working with our resident leaders to learn what we can do differently to ensure the safety of the children and families we serve,” Jeremiah said. 

Jeremiah also spoke to the challenges of poverty, food and housing insecurity in Philadelphia, saying that the “needs are overwhelming.” 

“Our hope is that government leaders, especially those at the federal level, will meet this moment and appropriately fund affordable housing and other programs that provide families in poverty with a hand up,” he said. 

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke shared similar statements, stating that the underlying issue in both the Fairmount fire and the recent fire in the Bronx, NYC, is a lack of affordable housing. 

“I believe in our ability to create an environment where you don’t have to have 20 or 30 people living in one apartment. We want to make sure that we come up with not only short-term solutions, but we really need to focus on the longer term issues,” Clarke said. 

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