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Philadelphia fire that left 12 dead highlights affordable housing issues in US, public housing authority CEO says

Philadelphia fire that left 12 dead highlights affordable housing issues in US, public housing authority CEO says
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Jeremiah spoke Thursday during a news conference where he confirmed that the lease indicated that there were 20 people — six in Unit A and 14 in Unit B — between two apartment units divided in the row of the house, although fire officials said on Wednesday that 26 people were living. in the two units.

In 2011, Jeremiah said, three people moved into Unit A and six in Unit B. And in the four-bedroom unit B, the family grew significantly between 2011 and 2021, with at least eight children added to the family.

Jeremiah described the family in Unit B as a multigenerational family consisting of a grandmother, her three daughters, and their children. The family wanted to stay together and the PHA had no occupancy limits.

“Our policies and procedures do not fire people because they have children,” Jeremiah said. “We don’t remove them because their families are growing.”

When a reporter asked Jeremiah why the PHA had not moved some residents in either apartment to another unit, the CEO replied that there was no indication the family wanted to do so.

“It may be a question that resonates, in particular, with the black and brown communities,” Jeremiah said, adding that he himself grew up in a similar unit of 16 people.

A fire Wednesday morning devastated neighbors in a Vermont area as many watched the burning building in horror. Bill Richards, who said he’s lived in the building for 24 years, told WPVI affiliate CNN that before he learned of the fire, he heard a woman screaming, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” Then he heard the sound of fire engines and got out.

“This is without a doubt one of the most tragic days in the history of our city – losing so many people in such a tragic way,” Mayor Jim Kenny said Wednesday morning. “Losing so many children is devastating…Keep these children in your prayers.”

Jeremiah said he spoke to a resident who was in the burning unit.

“My heart breaks for her and her family,” he said, crying.

Philadelphia Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy told reporters during a Thursday briefing that the Philadelphia Police Department and ATF’s Philadelphia branch are assisting with the investigation. Neither the PHA nor fire officials would comment on the suspected cause of the fire.

“It’s a very shocking sight, it’s a very complex investigation,” said Dennis Merrigan, deputy chief of the fire department in the Philadelphia Fire Marshall Bureau. “It’s something that would challenge us if we had to do it alone.”

Matthew Varisco, the special agent in charge of the ATF, said that no expense would be spared in the investigation.

Merrigan said the resources to be deployed include laser scanners.

“It’s like 3D cameras. As opposed to taking hundreds and hundreds of still images, we’re going to scan the entire room, that way it’s more like virtual reality. We can capture that scene later, come back and look at the computer and look at it in great detail.”

PHA units were legally divided in the 1950s

The Philadelphia Housing Authority is a municipal agency that rents homes to low-income people.

The fire occurred in a straight house that had been legally divided into two apartments since the 1950s and had no wrongdoing, according to a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Licensing and Inspection.

It is estimated that the building was constructed in 1920, according to records.

Jeremiah said PHA is proud to invest in its infrastructure, despite it being a cash-strapped agency.

“The conditions of public housing in our country are deteriorating, and in some cases they are poor,” he said. “You look anywhere in this country – from New York to Los Angeles to Seattle to Florida, you name the city – the state of public housing in the country is in a disgusting state.”

While conditions continue to deteriorate, he said, families are being left waiting.

“They can’t wait any longer,” Jeremiah said. “It has become a matter of life and death for many families.”

An official said the PHA replaced smoke detectors in 2019 and 2020

Firefighters responded to the flames around 6:40 a.m. Wednesday and found a “heavy fire” in the kitchen area at the front of the second floor. Officials said. The fire commissioner pointed out that “there was nothing to slow the movement of those fires.”

Murphy initially told reporters that four smoke detectors were in the building, and “none of them worked.”

Murphy later noted that Philadelphia Housing Authority records show that at least six battery-powered smoke detectors were installed there from 2019 to 2020.

However, Dinesh Indala, PHA’s senior executive vice president of operations, said the agency has different information about the reagents.

The Philadelphia Fire Department works at the scene of a house fire in Philadelphia on January 5, 2022.

Indala said Thursday that Unit A in the apartment had seven smoke detectors and three carbon monoxide detectors on its last inspection. Indala said Unit B has six functional smoke detectors and three functional carbon monoxide detectors as of its last check in May 2021.

Indala said two batteries and two smoke detectors were replaced in 2021. The smoke detectors in Unit B were also replaced in an inspection in September 2019, according to Indala.

“When we last did our inspection, the smoke detectors were, in fact, working,” said Jeremiah, PHA’s CEO. “If, as a result of this fire, the fire chief determines that they were not, in fact, operating or were not, in fact, in operation, they may have been tampered with or the batteries have been removed in some way. We do not go into the units and remove the batteries.”

Indala said faulty smoke detectors are treated as emergencies and replaced within 24 hours if requested, and the authority conducts inspections annually.

“Every time we came in for an inspection, obviously from the last time, we had to replace two batteries, replace the smoke detectors. And these are smoke detectors for 10 years, so this is something we encounter a lot on our properties,” Indala said.

Residents describe escaping from the flames

Kadera Purevoy said her family had suffered an unimaginable loss. Two of her sisters, four nieces and nephews died in the fire, she told CNN affiliate KYW-TV.

“I lost the sisters, I never thought this would happen,” said Purivoy. Sisters, daughters and sons.

Debra Jackson’s sister managed to escape from the first floor of the house with three of her children, she told KYW-TV.

People interact near the scene of a fatal house fire, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia.

“Two of her sons got burns,” Jackson said, “maybe it was just smoke inhalation. But thank God they’re alive.” “My heart goes out to the family who lost all their family.”

The Philadelphia school district said Wednesday that it is working with City Council President Daryl Clark to create a fund to help affected families.

The district said some of the children who died were students in the city’s schools, without saying how many. The district said it also provided counseling and support services to grieving students.

Neighbors and others — some sobbing — gathered outside the burning home as firefighters and police worked at the scene Wednesday morning, CNN affiliate WPVI reported.

It’s very annoying,” Richards, who also lives in the building, told WPVI. “I just can’t get around it.”

Richards described the area as a “very homely neighborhood.”

“We will help each other get through the grief,” he said.

CNN’s Kelly McCleary, Carol Alvarado, Laura Dolan, Mark Morales and Christina Sigglia contributed to this report.


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