PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Investigators are looking into whether a five-year-old who was playing with a lighter set a tree on fire, sparking a conflagration that killed 12 family members in a Philadelphia rowhome, officials revealed on Thursday.
That disclosure was included in a search warrant application as city and federal investigators sought to determine the cause of the blaze, the city’s deadliest in more than a century, which took the lives of three sisters and several of their children early Wednesday.
Spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner Jane Roh confirmed the contents of the search warrant, which was first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Fire officials provided few details at an afternoon news briefing, declining to say how many people escaped the blaze or speculate on a possible cause, adding the fire scene was complex. Officials also did not say where the fire began, calling it part of the investigation.
“I know that we will hopefully be able to provide a specific origin and cause to this fire and to provide some answers to the loved ones and, really, to the city,” said Matthew Varisco, who leads the Philadelphia branch of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
ATF specialists and other investigators took photos and combed through the charred, three-storey brick duplex owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the city’s public housing agency and the state’s biggest landlord.
In a statement at a Thursday night vigil, relatives said the matriarch of their family had lost three daughters and nine grandchildren in the blaze. The daughters were identified as Rosalee McDonald, Virginia Thomas and Quinsha White.
There were two survivors, the family said. Temple University Hospital said one was in