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Philadelphia Fire Started When Boy, 5, Ignited Christmas Tree

In the news conference on Tuesday, Commissioner Thiel said investigators found seven smoke alarms in the unit after the fire. Four were found in drawers; one was found on the floor, its battery removed; and another was attached to a ceiling, its battery removed as well. The seventh alarm, which was in a basement shared by the two units, had activated, but its alerts came too late, given how quickly the fire spread in the upper floors.

The city also released the names of the dead on Tuesday. The three adults who died were Rosalee McDonald, Virginia Thomas and Quinsha White. The children were Dekwan Robinson, Destiny McDonald, Janiyah Roberts, J’Kwan Robinson, Natasha Wayne, Quientien Tate-McDonald, Shaniece Wayne, Taniesha Robinson and Tiffany Robinson. All died of smoke inhalation, according to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office.

The tragedy brought renewed attention to a dire shortage of quality low-income housing in the city and across the country. The waiting list for new public housing units in Philadelphia, a city with a large population under the poverty line, runs to 40,000 households and has been closed for nearly a decade.

The extended family had moved into the rowhouse apartment in 2011, having outgrown a smaller home elsewhere in public housing. Since moving in, the number of occupants on the lease had grown from six to 14 as the families grew. While some members of the family had told friends and social workers that they wanted to move, officials with the housing authority say that no one in the apartment had formally requested a new place.

City officials emphasized that Philadelphia’s housing stock was old and needed to be updated to modern safety standards, such as smoke alarms wired directly into the building. That requires a significant amount of spending, said Kelvin Jeremiah, the director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, money that the agency does not have.

“This incident,” he said on Tuesday, “highlights the fundamental truth that there is, in fact, an affordable housing crisis in the city.”

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