Holiday Horror: Philly fire kills seven

December 28, 2008 11:29:40 AM PST
Dozens of Liberian immigrants gathered Saturday at the site of a devastating house fire where they said seven members of their community died after an accident with a kerosene heater. All the victims were in the basement watching The Bourne Ultimatum.

Seven people perished including four children.

Michelle Dosso's three young children, Ramere, Meriam, Zaire, were among them. All three died of smoke inhalation.

"When it really hits me is when I put my kids in the ground," Michelle said.

Michelle was not inside the home and neither was the father of two of her children, Inza Dosso.

He learned the grim news this morning.

"My sister called, she said the kids are dead. I said, 'my kids?' She said, 'yeah, my kids,'" Inza said.

Fire survivor Harris Murphy said those trapped in the basement blaze were, like him, part of the large Liberian enclave in southwest Philadelphia.

The blaze broke out around 10:45 p.m. Friday in a three-story brick duplex, killing four adults and three children, including a 1-year-old who was cradled in the arms of another victim, fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said.

Four people survived the fire including Murphy, 35, who lives down the street but was watching a movie with others at the home when the flames erupted.

Fire marshals have not yet released the cause of the blaze. But Murphy said it started after a woman added fuel to a kerosene heater and, when it became too hot, tried to move it outside through the basement's only door.

Some of the flaming liquid spilled out and set the carpet on fire, and several people in the room tried to stamp out the flames, Murphy said.

The heater then "exploded," he said.

Murphy said he ran into a basement bathroom with another man and some children, got in the tub and turned on the shower to try to wait out the flames until firefighters arrived. After a few moments, he said he decided to make a break for it because the smoke was growing thick.

The whole basement was engulfed in fire and "I just ran through it," he said.

After making it out, Murphy called authorities and told them there were children trapped in the shower. He was expecting that they would be found alive, but learned hours later that seven people had perished. One victim was his best friend of 25 years, Murphy said.

Some Liberians who came to the house Saturday morning did not know who died but, because of the home's location, feared they would know one or more of the victims. The neighborhood is home to many of the city's 15,000 Liberian immigrants.

The names of the dead - and the survivors - quickly spread through cell phone calls and word-of-mouth after Murphy and victims' relatives arrived at the site. Fire officials would not immediately confirm any of the names.

Anthony Kesselly, president of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, lives nearby and said he knew one victim very well. He came to the house as soon as he heard the news Saturday morning and was not surprised to see the growing crowd. "We are very close-knit people," Kesselly said.

Murphy, who moved from Liberia to the U.S. in 1996, said "it was a miracle of God" that he escaped. He had large bandages on his head and right hand, and suffered visible burns and blisters on his nose, ears and left hand.

Fire officials said six victims were found huddled together in the front of the basement, one of them cradling the baby. The seventh was found near the basement door. No causes of death were released.

Anthony Kesselly, president of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, lives nearby and said he knew Gbokoloi very well. He came to the house when he heard the news Saturday morning and was not surprised to see the growing crowd.

"We are very close-knit people," Kesselly said.

The fire commissioner said there were no smoke detectors in the house.

The Fire Marshall is investigating this fire for the origin and cause.

American Red Cross Southeastern PA Chapter is assisting those affected.

LINK: American Red Cross Southeastern PA Chapter

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Action News' Chad Pradelli contributed to this article.

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