PHILADELPHIA - Mourners gathered Monday for funeral services for nine children and three adults who died in a Philadelphia fire five days into the new year, the deadliest blaze in the city in more than a century.
A funeral procession on the rain-soaked streets of the city Monday morning was followed by services at Temple University's Liacouras Center, to which members of the community were invited and asked to wear white.
Three sisters — Rosalee McDonald, 33, Virginia Thomas, 31, and Quinsha White, 18 — and nine of their children died in the blaze, according to family members. The city last week identified the other victims as Quintien Tate-McDonald, 16, Destiny McDonald, 15, Dekwan Robinson, 8, J’Kwan Robinson, 5, Taniesha Robinson, 3, Tiffany Robinson, 2, Shaniece Wayne, 10, Natasha Wayne, 8, and Janiyah Roberts, 3.
Those in attendance at the three-hour service listened to Bible readings, official proclamations and music. Relatives spoke about their loss and their memories of their loved ones from two microphones behind tables bearing caskets amid white flowers and large pictures of the victims.
Family and members of the community remembered the 12 lives lost in this month's fire in Fairmount.
"None of us know what to do with a funeral with 12 people," said the Reverend Dr. Alyn Waller of the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. "We're in a space of grief and pain we wish on no one else."
One speaker, an aunt of the children, tearfully said she believed there was "a family reunion in heaven."
"I believe they're with their dad. I believe they're with my mother. I believe they're with my father, their uncles and aunts," she said. "The hurt is deep but it will subside."
Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel on Tuesday said a Christmas tree ignited by a lighter is believed to have started the Wednesday morning fire that torched a Philadelphia Housing Authority-owned rowhome on North 23rd Street.
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"We believe with certainty - so 99 to 100% confidence - that the first item ignited in this blaze was a Christmas tree," Thiel said. "We believe with near certainty, based on the evidence, the ignition source for this tree was a lighter that was located nearby."
Earlier in the week, a warrant revealed that authorities were investigating if a 5-year-old child playing with a lighter ignited the deadly blaze. Thiel did not confirm the theory, but he said that a 5-year-old was the only person on the second floor where the tree and the lighter were located at the time of the fire.
"We are left with the words of that 5-year-old child, that traumatized 5-year-old child, to help us understand how the lighter and the tree came together with tragic consequences," Thiel said.
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Medical Examiner’s Office on Tuesday said all 12 people died of smoke inhalation.
Thiel said investigators found seven nonfunctioning smoke alarms in the unit where the deadly fire occurred. Three of the alarms were in a kitchen drawer, another was found in a bedroom drawer.
"One was on the ceiling of a bedroom, but the battery door was open and there was no battery inside and there was another one on the floor of a bedroom with no battery inside," Thiel said.
At least two people were hospitalized, and some others managed to escape from the building, officials said. It's believed that 26 people were staying in the two apartments.
The Associated Press contributed to this report