By Theresa Waldrop
New York City and Philadelphia both mourn the loss of dozens of lives, including many children, in the horrific apartment fires in recent days.
Together, the two fires killed 31 people, 17 of whom are believed to be children.
Add to the tragedy the winter temperatures in the region and the raging Covid-19 pandemic, which is straining health systems almost everywhere.
The Philadelphia Fairmont Fire
Early Wednesday morning, a fire ravaged a Crowded apartment building in Philadelphia, killing at least 12 people, mostly children.
The victims included three sisters and all but one of their 10 children, a family member told CNN.
Rosalee McDonald, 33; Virginia Thomas, 30, and Quinsha White, 18, were killed, according to their cousins Frank and Pamela McDonald. Six of Rosalee McDonald’s children and three of Thomas’s children also died in the blaze. The ages of their children have not been specified.
“They were both good people, great mothers and very family oriented,” Frank McDonald told CNN. “Rosalee was one of the best people you could meet. She was very supportive of me – they both were. They came to help me with my business when I opened it.
The building was a three-story house converted into apartments that could accommodate 26 people, according to firefighters.
Bill Richards, who said he had lived in the neighborhood for 24 years, told CNN affiliate WPVI that before he knew about the fire, he heard a woman screaming, “Oh my God! Oh my God! ”He then heard fire trucks and got out.
Neighbors and others – some sobbing – gathered outside as firefighters and police worked on the scene Wednesday morning, WPVI reported.
A seasoned firefighter called it one of the worst he has ever faced.
“It was terrible,” said Craig Murphy, assistant commissioner of the Philadelphia fire department. “I’ve been here for 30, 35 years now, and it’s probably one of the worst fires I’ve ever seen.”
“This is without a doubt one of the most tragic days in our city’s history – the loss of so many people in such a tragic way,” Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday morning. “Losing so many children is just devastating. … Keep these babies in your prayers.
The cause of the fire is under investigation. A possibility under study is whether a child under 5 playing with a lighter under a Christmas tree could have started the fire, according to Jane Roh, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.
The Bronx fire
In New York’s Bronx, 19 people, including nine children, have died in a five-alarm fire that roars through a building on Sunday.
Of the 63 people injured, 32 were hospitalized in life-threatening conditions, New York Fire Marshal Daniel Nigro said.
The fire started in a faulty radiator in a two-story apartment, according to Nigro. It consumed that apartment, Nigro said, then the smoke engulfed the stairs and people trying to exit.
“The door to this apartment – unfortunately when the residents left – remained open; it did not close on its own. The smoke spread throughout the building resulting in huge loss of life and people fighting for their lives right now in Bronx hospitals, ”Nigro said.
There were no fire escape stairs on the building. About 200 firefighters responded to the blaze, and some of them ran out of oxygen as they tried to get residents out, Nigro said.
Daisy Mitchell, who lived on the 10th floor, told CNN affiliate WABC that she was really scared to leave her apartment.
“I just hear people knocking on doors saying ‘it’s a fire, it’s a fire’, so I don’t care, but when we opened that door the smoke hit us, and we ran down the hall to the exit and I just panicked, I was scared, even with the mask on, ”Mitchell told CNN affiliate WABC.
Mamadou Wague, who lived in the apartment where the fire started, told WABC he jumped through the flames to save his daughter.
“We were sleeping and my kids were screaming saying fire, fire,” Wague said, according to WABC.
“I don’t want to hear anyone die in this fire, that’s what worries me,” Wague told WABC.
The blaze “is going to be one of the worst fires we have seen in modern times here in New York City,” New York Mayor Eric Adams said.
“This is a horrible, horrible and painful time for New York City, and the impact of this fire is really going to bring a level of pain and desperation to our city,” Adams said.
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Elizabeth Joseph, Amir Vera, Laura James, Eric Levenson, Alaa Elassar, Laura Studley, Mark Morales, Laura Dolan, Carll Alvarado, Paul P. Murphy and Taylor Romine contributed to this report.