Christmas tree fire that killed 12 may ‘have been started by child playing with lighter’

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Investigators are looking into whether a five-year-old could have started a fire which killed 12 people, according to a warrant.

A fire in a terraced house in the American city of Philadelphia may have been originally caused by a child playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree, the new search warrant said.

The information was released on Thursday as city and federal officials try to figure out what started the terrible blaze on Wednesday morning which tragically killed two sisters and several of their children, along with others.

It marked the deadliest fire in the city in over a hundred years.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the five-year-old boy, who made it out alive, told a neighbour and later a paramedic, a firefighter and hospital staff, how the fire had started and that his mother had died.

Officials have not released much information on the fire, but said they hope to soon.

Matthew Varisco, who leads Philly’s branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), said: “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.”

Fire Department Deputy Chief Dennis Merrigan said the city Fire Marshal’s Office is leading a “very complex” investigation that uses laser scanners to create 3-D renderings of the inside of the structure.

Among those who died in the fire were sisters Rosalee McDonald, 33, Virginia Thomas, 30, and Quinsha White, 18, their relatives said.

Some of their children who died were students in the School District of Philadelphia, some attending the nearby Bache-Martin Elementary school, district officials confirmed.

Quintien Tate-McDonald had graduated from Bache-Martin and the 16-year-old was one of the victims of the blaze.

His 14-year-old younger sister Destiny McDonald, also died in the fire, according to a basketball coach, the Inquirer reported.

On Thursday, members of an ATF response team, electrical engineers and other specialists investigated what was left of the tree-story house, taking photos and combing through the charred remains.

The building is owned by Philadelphia Housing Authority, the city’s public housing agency.

The city housing authority’s president, Kelvin Jeremiah, said that 14 people, 10 of whom were children, were allowed to live in the four-bed upstairs apartment where the fire originally broke out.

A further six people were authorised to live in the lower unit.

The fire department had previously said that none of the four smoke alarms in the building appeared to work, according to Associated Press.

However, housing authority officials said that the detectors had been working during an inspection in May of 2021, over seven months ago.