Vanessa McDonald might never recover from the loss of her two daughters and six grandchildren in one of the deadliest fires in Philadelphia history.
McDonald is in a state of shock and not speaking about the early morning fire that left 12 dead, said Tommy White, her first cousin.
Vanessa’s daughters were Rosalee McDonald, 33, and Virginia Thomas, 30, said White. The siblings each had multiple children but it’s unclear if all of them were home at the time of the fire or how many of them died, he said.
“We’re just trying to cushion the blow for them at this time,” said White on Thursday. “They are still in a place of denial. They are still struggling to accept this.
“The pain they are experiencing and the things that they are going to continue to feel for the rest of their lives — that’s the part they share alone,” White continued. “At this point in time, Vanessa is not in a position to talk about that because her heart is not there.”
White said he did not want to discuss details about the family and did not know why so many were living in the rowhome at the time of the fire.
“Whatever circumstances led them to that place, this is where they had their shelter,” said White. “I don’t know if it was temporary housing or were they visiting.”
White received a phone call from a relative at about noon Wednesday and learned about the deaths when arriving on the scene a short time later, he said. Relatives and friends remained together late into the evening.
A police procession, including four vans, took the bodies of the victims from the burned-out home Wednesday evening as family members and neighbors watched from the corner near the 23rd Street house.
A small memorial with stuffed animals was set up near the house Thursday.
“Vanessa lost her daughter and her grandchildren,” said White. “We can never begin to understand how she must feel.”
Some of the children were students in city schools, according to statement.
“The School District of Philadelphia is heartbroken over the tragic news of yesterday’s house fire in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood, which claimed the lives of 12 people, including children associated with our District. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family members, friends and school communities who are grieving this unimaginable loss,” it read.
The area was still cordoned off to vehicle traffic Thursday afternoon, and just a few passers-by were allowed access.
The impact of the fire reverberated throughout the neighborhood.
“It broke my heart that children needlessly lost their lives,” said Monica Bradley, who lives in the neighborhood. “The news said something about smoke detectors not working. This could have been prevented.”
Matthew Nobles was waiting for the bus a few blocks away on Girard Avenue near Ridge. He, too, wondered of the conditions inside the residence.
“It was a tragedy waiting to happen,” Nobles said commenting on the number of people in the building. “In those types of buildings, it looks like there were no other ways out, except for the front door and the back door. This is a disaster. Hopefully, this causes PHA and the city to take a hard look at how they rent out these properties and how they are maintained.”
At least 18 people were living in the upper apartment, which included the third floor and part of the second, and eight people were living in the lower unit, which included the first floor and the other part of the second, officials have said. It was a Philadelphia Housing Authority building.
Deputy fire commissioner Craig Murphy said he could not say whether that was more than what would be allowed, but called it a “tremendous amount of people to be living in a duplex.”
The quick-moving blaze remains under investigation.
Specialists from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives took photos and then entered the charred, three-story brick duplex, where the city’s deadliest single blaze in more than a century took the lives of eight children. The city fire marshal requested ATF’s assistance.
All those who died are believed to be from what was known as Unit B of the three-story rowhome that was split into two apartments, officials said. Unit B occupied the second and third floors and included four bedrooms, officials said.
The Escamillio D. Jones Funeral Home, of Philadelphia, said it was speaking with the some of families of the victims and had offered to provide the funeral services at no cost. White confirmed that he was speaking with that funeral home. As yet, there are no plans for the funerals, he said.
The family is also concerned with fake or suspect gofundme online fundraisers on their behalf. The family has authorized one gofundme campaign and some family members have posted it on social media.
The Philadelphia school district said Thursday that counseling and support services were available for grieving students and staff. The city’s emergency management office opened up a support center for friends and relatives at an elementary school that one of the victims attended.
At least two people were hospitalized and some others managed to escape from the building, which is public housing, officials have said. Officials said 26 people had been staying in the two apartments.
The Associated Press contributed to this report