PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A house fire in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood left at least 12 people dead, including eight children.
The blaze broke out around 6:40 a.m. Wednesday in the 800 block of N. 23rd Street. Firefighters arrived to find heavy flames shooting from the second story of the three-story row house.
There are no words to adequately describe the sense of devastation that relatives are feeling right now who lost loved ones.
For hours they sought answers for how and why something like this, so terrible and gripping, could happen -- entire families gone in just a matter of minutes. Presently, there are still no clear answers.
As relatives and friends hugged and cried throughout the day, it was impossible to calculate the pain. Qaadira and Jacuita Purifoy say they lost their three sisters and their eight children.
"I work with children, so to know that my nieces and nephews are not here, it's gonna be really hard for me to work with kids again," said Qaadira Purifoy, who is related to some of the victims. "I never thought this would happen."
"My sisters and my nephews and my nieces are gone, they are deceased, they are never coming back anymore," added Jacuita Purifoy.
They identified one of the victims as 32-year-old Virginia Thomas. A second sister, identified as Rosalee McDonald, also perished in the blaze, along with her six children: three boys and three girls.
Impromptu vigils and prayers were being offered to the victims and their relatives late Wednesday night.
"We don't know why this happened, but God we ask you to make us strong in this situation," prayed a minister who arrived on the scene.
The close-knit Fairmount community gathered as they could during the pandemic with a vigil over Zoom.
Liberti Fairmount Church hosted the event to allow people to pray and remember the victims.
A guidance counselor at Bache Martin School, where some of the youngest victims were enrolled, told those at the vigil, there's no right way to grieve.
Bache-Martin is virtual this week.
But counseling and crisis therapy will be provided to students.
Relatives were at a loss in understanding how none of the smoke alarms were working, which may have saved lives.
In a statement, PHA President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah confirmed the property was last inspected in the spring, and all smoke detectors were "operating properly at that time."
SEE ALSO: 8 children among at least 12 dead after duplex fire in Fairmount section of Philadelphia
Fire officials said 18 people were living in the upstairs apartment known as Unit B, which was comprised of the 2nd and 3rd floors of the duplex. Another eight people lived on the first floor, Unit A.
However, the Philadelphia Housing Authority said they were only aware of 14 residents in Unit B when they did their last occupancy recertification in October.
There was no immediate word on the cause of this fire, but sources tell Action News that investigators are looking into the possibility the blaze might have been sparked by a Christmas tree fire.
Sources say most, if not all, of the fatalities were from Unit B.
Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy noted that it was a large number of people to be occupying a duplex, but a spokesperson for Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections said the city does not limit the number of family members who can stay in a single unit.
In all, fire officials said a total of 26 people were living in the duplex, though, officials stressed that number could change.
The mayor said people should withhold judgment.
"You don't know the circumstances of each and every family, and maybe there were relatives and family that needed to be sheltered," Kenney said. "Obviously the tragedy happened, and we all mourn for it. But we can't make judgment on the number of people living in the house because sometimes people just need to be indoors."
The ATF is working with local officials to investigate the deadly blaze.