PHILADELPHIA – Smoke detectors were installed last year inside a row home where four young children died in a fast-moving blaze that engulfed at least 10 residences, fire officials said.
Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer said the department installed two smoke alarms in the house where the blaze erupted early Saturday, killing three 4-year-olds and a baby. It raced from row home to row home, even though the first fire engine was based only two blocks away and was on the scene about three minutes after the call came in, Sawyer said.
Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the fire. One witness said he saw a couch on a porch on fire and saw the flames spread to other residences.
Twin sisters Maria and Marialla Bowah were among the dead. Their father, Pennoh Davis, told WPVI-TV that they loved to attend Sunday school.
“My little girls, they loved to play, loved to read, loved to draw and loved to sing,” Davis said.
The girls’ mother, Dewen Bowah, told police she was home with seven children and managed to get her three other daughters out before jumping from a second-floor window. But she couldn’t save the twins, 1-month-old Taj Jaque and 4-year-old Patrick Sanyeah. The boys’ mother wasn’t in the home at the time.
“We lost four precious lives,” Mayor Michael Nutter said Saturday. “I can only pray that their pain was not long and they did not truly feel and experience the intensity of this fire and flames.”
Virginia Townes, who lives across the narrow street, told The Philadelphia Inquirer she looked out the window and felt the massive heat, which melted the taillights of parked cars.
“I heard nothing but terrifying screams from the kids,” Townes said.
Bowah and her three surviving daughters were taken to the hospital, but the extent of their injuries was not known.
Jeff Boone told The Inquirer he saw a couch on fire on the porch of a house about five doors down from his residence and heard children screaming.
The flames spread across porches so fast, he said, that “it looked like someone had a flamethrower and just shot it all across.” Boone said he called 911 and bolted out of his house to try to save his neighbors.
Milton Musa told the newspaper his roommate woke him up and said their home was on fire. Once outside, Musa said, he saw two children hanging from a neighbor’s window.
“Everyone was running for their lives,” he said. “I’ve lost everything. My paperwork, my documents, my house. Everything.”
The Red Cross said 32 people were displaced.
Crews from the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections plan to tear down the porch roofs and seal the burned-out homes to prevent people from entering. Eight of the homes were deemed structurally unsafe.