As the flames licked up the sides of the awning-fronted rooming house near the end of the block on North 21st Street, someone told the firefighters on the scene that people were trapped inside.
It was Tuesday night in North Philadelphia, and firefighters were battling what would escalate to a two-alarm blaze. They headed for the third floor, through smoke, flames, and low visibility — until the staircase collapsed, sending a group plummeting to the first floor. Later, firefighters dragged a ladder inside, extended it to the third floor, and searched what they could reach. They found no one.
By the wee hours of Wednesday morning, with the fire out, the scene was declared cleared, said Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, who described the events in an interview Saturday. The firefighters left.
On Friday, the Fire Marshal's Office fielded a call: Three relatives of the person on the line lived in the house on 21st Street and had not been heard from since the fire.
A unit sent back to the building searched again. In a bathroom on the third floor, they found the bodies of a young woman, her father, and her little boy. On the street, neighbors watched as the family's relatives sobbed.
The victims' identities had not been released as of Saturday evening.
On Saturday, Thiel said his department was investigating. "The real challenge for us is what happened between when we believed the building was clear and [Friday]," he said, "and that's the timeline we're working on pulling together."
He said investigators from the Fire Marshal's Office, as well as police officers and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives remained on the scene after the fire-and-rescue crews left.
But he could not say why it had taken three days for crews to reenter the building to search for the family, or when the department first realized that the family's relatives had reported them missing. NBC Philadelphia reported that relatives said they spent several days calling the department.
Thiel said the fire had been a serious one from the beginning. Another man had died on the scene, possibly because he had tried to jump from a window to escape the flames, Thiel said. It had been unclear whether anyone remained inside the house, Thiel said. But firefighters' "first priority is to search for life," he said, and so a team headed up the stairs
until the staircase collapsed. Several of them were buried under fallen debris on the first floor — one pulled a "mayday" signal — and were dug out by colleagues. Two firefighters were injured in the collapse, one of whom spent the night at a hospital.
The house, on the 1800 block of North 21st Street, had been divided into illegal apartment units, Thiel said. That made it difficult for residents to escape, and difficult for firefighters to fully search the property, he said.
According to records from the Department of Licens
es and Inspections, the house is owned by Granite Hill Properties, a property management company, but has not had an active rental license since 2015. The firm did not return a call for comment Saturday. Karen Guss, a spokeswoman for L&I, said the house was zoned as a single-family unit and should not have been rented to multiple households.
Thiel said the crews on scene had done what they could to search the house.
"We average seven or eight structure fires every day, we have reports of people trapped and it turns out they're not," he said. "Unfortunately, and tragically in this case, they were. And we didn't find them."
The firefighters who went back to the third floor to search again during the fire would have fallen through the floor "exactly as their colleagues did" if they had tried to reach the bathroom where the family's bodies were found, he said.
Thiel said the Medical Examiner's Office would determine the
causes of death.
The neighbors on 21st Street said they had watched the fire Tuesday night and worried about the tenants they'd sometimes pass on the street — and were especially concerned about the young woman and her family who they said had lived there just a few months.
The day after the fire, one of her friends on the block had been calling her cellphone, over and over, to no avail. The neighbors hoped that she was staying with relatives. But on Friday morning, the woman's relatives arrived on the block and told neighbors they hadn't heard from her either. "It was terrible," said John Choice, who's lived on the block for 40 years.
Thiel said the department sent investigators to the house after the family called on Friday, who, "in the light of day," were able to find the family in the bathroom. The next several hours were spent shoring up the house so it was structurally sound enough to remove the bodies, he said.