1 year anniversary of deadly Fairmount fire that killed 12, including 9 children

The victims ranged in age from 2 to 33.

Katherine Scott Image
Thursday, January 5, 2023
1 year anniversary of deadly Fairmount fire that killed 12
"This whole year has just been so crazy without them. There are times I can't sleep at night just thinking about them, how much I miss them," said Howard Robinson, a family member.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A ceremony was held at Chelten Hills Cemetery on Thursday afternoon to commemorate the first anniversary of one of the deadliest fires in Philadelphia history.

A large headstone was unveiled for the unmarked graves of the 12 victims who died in the fire in Fairmount one year ago. Their ages ranged from 2 to 33.

"This whole year has just been so crazy without them. There are times I can't sleep at night just thinking about them, how much I miss them," said Howard Robinson, a family member.

Philadelphia-based Lee Monument partnered with eight local businesses to raise thousands of dollars to provide one large headstone to cover the four unmarked graves for all 12 fire victims.

"I think without a doubt it may be the saddest, one of the saddest, days in Philadelphia ever, and it still is sad today," said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.

One year later, the windows of the Fairmount duplex are boarded. A memorial sits at the base of the rowhome on North 23rd Street by Ogden Street. Children's bikes still hang from the back fence.

Flames pierced through the cold, dark sky in Fairmount around 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 5, 2022.

"I remember waking up that day and hearing the fire trucks. It just broke my heart," said Cathy Piotrowski of Fairmount.

The fire began in an apartment that occupied the second and third floors of a three-story rowhome.

"We were unsure what was happening inside, and the potential of the loss that actually happened was unimaginable to us," remembered Mitchell Young of Fairmount.

The family in the building's other unit escaped.

But 12 did not survive.

Three adult sisters identified as Rosalee McDonald, Virginia Thomas, and Quinsha White, as well as nine of their children, died in the blaze. Their nine children are Dekwan Robinson, Destiny McDonald, Janiyah Roberts, J'Kwan Robinson, Natasha Wayne, Quientien Tate-McDonald, Shaniece Wayne, Taniesha Robinson, and Tiffany Robinson.

"Without seeing all the kids and the family outside, everyone was scared, and the worst unfolded," Young continued.

SEE ALSO: Survivors of fatal Fairmount fire describe terrifying scene, last-minute escape

The investigation determined the fire started as a 5-year-old played with a lighter near a Christmas tree. That child survived as well as one other apartment occupant.

"We worked with an organization from the city afterward - a trauma response group called Network for Neighbors - that did a pretty amazing job helping us as neighbors process what happened and deal with the grief that happened in the neighborhood," Young said.

The investigation also determined there was only one working smoke alarm in the public housing unit. That working alarm was located in the basement. Investigators said the other six alarms were removed from their positions or their batteries were taken out.

This fire led to national changes. Senator Bob Casey and Congresswoman Madeleine Dean introduced fire safety legislation, which has now been signed into law by President Joe Biden.

The law requires the installation of tamper-resistant smoke alarms in public housing nationwide.

The Philadelphia Fire Department announced Thursday that new changes will be coming soon to try and prevent another tragedy like this from happening again.

Nichole Tillman, the Executive Vice President of Communications with the Philadelphia Housing Authority sent Action News this statement:

"Since the tragic fire last year, PHA has worked diligently to support the impacted families in ensuring that the surviving family members were supported and rehoused. PHA also partnered closely with our residents on the importance of fire safety and preventing fires at our developments. We recognize that education and partnership with our residents are key. Accordingly, PHA has actively engaged with the Resident Advisory Board (RAB) leaders and residents all year to educate, remind, and reinforce the importance of fire safety and the critical role residents play in ensuring safety. This included: meetings, fire safety literature and fire drills as well as encouraging residents to have in place an emergency safety plan for their families. Safety of our residents remains paramount for all of us at PHA, and will continue to collaborate with our residents, who we are privileged to serve, to educate and inform them about fire safety and prevention."

In the last year, there were also local fire safety efforts to prevent future tragedies including Operation 6abc Save a Life, and Kidde handing out and installing smoke alarms throughout the city.

How to get a smoke alarm in Philadelphia