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Philadelphia fire department probes deadly fire that tore through a duplex home

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Philadelphia's fire department is investigating the fire that killed at least 12 people inside an apartment building Wednesday. Eight were children. Here's Aaron Moselle of WHYY.

AARON MOSELLE, BYLINE: Smoke lingered in the air as Reggie Johnson stood, nearly speechless, at the end of North 23rd Street, not far from downtown. In the distance, police and firefighters were removing victims from the burned-out row house. Several of them were Johnson's relatives.

REGGIE JOHNSON: I feel mad. I feel like I - helpless. I feel like I don't have nothing to - I wish I had something to offer the rest of them. I don't have nothing.

MOSELLE: Johnson says his family is devastated by the loss of their young relatives.

JOHNSON: There was some hope in the generation that they was raising. They was raising them real good in a real good upbringing way, you know? The kids was going to take the family somewhere else. This was going to change the family.

MOSELLE: Investigators are still trying to figure out what caused the fire that also sent one adult and a child to local hospitals for treatment. Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy says the three-story row house had four smoke detectors, but that none of them went off before flames ripped through the duplex. The building is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

CRAIG MURPHY: It was terrible. I've been around for 30, 35 years now, and this is probably one of the worst fires I've ever been to.

MOSELLE: Murphy says the fire moved quickly through the building.

MURPHY: The only thing that was slowing that fire down from moving was - there was nothing slowing that fire down from moving. That fire was moving.

MOSELLE: Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, whose father was a firefighter, was visibly shaken as he spoke to reporters.

JIM KENNEY: I don't have much more to say than please keep all these folks and especially these children in your prayers. Losing so many kids is just devastating.

MOSELLE: Another relative of the victims is Isaiah Brown. He says the fire has left him feeling broken.

ISAIAH BROWN: They're babies. Babies, man. Young children, you know what I'm saying? They didn't even get to experience life.

MOSELLE: The Philadelphia Housing Authority says it last inspected the building in May of 2021. The agency says all smoke detectors were working at that time.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Moselle in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "DOLORES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.