The family of nine children and three adults who died in a Philadelphia rowhome fire welcomed members of the community to their funeral services Monday.
The funeral for Dekwan Robinson, Destiny McDonald, Janiyah Roberts, J'Kwan Robinson, Natasha Wayne, Quientien Tate-McDonald, Quinsha White, Rosalee McDonald, Shaniece Wayne, Taniesha Robinson, Tiffany Robinson and Virginia Thomas was held at Temple University’s Liacouras Center.
“There are no words to express the love and gratitude our family holds in our hearts for our community. We are beyond moved by the outpouring of love and support,” the family said in a written statement announcing the funeral services.
A funeral procession on the rain-soaked streets of the city Monday morning was followed by services at the Liacouras Center, to which members of the community were invited and asked to wear white.
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.
“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."
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“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.”
The fire started in an apartment that occupied the second and third floors of a three-story row home on the 800 block of North 23rd Street around 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 5. The deceased died of smoke inhalation, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said.
Investigators believe with near certainty that a Christmas tree ignited by a lighter started the blaze in the Fairmount neighborhood.
Thiel said the fire was "incendiary," meaning investigators don't believe it occurred accidentally.
While investigators confirmed reports that a 5-year-old survivor told them he was the one who lit the tree on fire, they also said the boy's words weren't enough evidence for them to deem that the official cause.
The 5-year-old boy was one of 14 people who were inside the home at the time of the fire. Only the 5-year-old, who was found on the second floor where the fire started, and another person who escaped out of the window, survived. Another occupant who was rescued by firefighters later died.
As firefighters battled the flames, they discovered multiple people dead in the home. It took 50 minutes to get the blaze under control, according to the city fire department.
The property was owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. The Philadelphia Fire Department found six inoperable and/or disabled smoke alarms in the unit where the fire occurred. PHA officials said they last inspected the two units in April and May of last year. All smoke detectors were working at those times, according to officials.
The fire was tied for the sixth-deadliest residential fire in the United States since 1980, according to the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association.
The blaze shocked Philadelphians and underscored problems of unaffordability and underfunding of public housing in the nation’s poorest big city.
The family moved in in 2011 and had been relocated there because their old home was too small, said Kelvin Jeremiah, the PHA’s president and chief executive officer. Over time, three daughters had children of their own and the family grew, with three generations living under the same roof.
“This was in fact an intact family who chose to live together. This is what we do. We don’t kick out our family members, our loved ones who may not have other suitable housing options,” Jeremiah said.