PHILADELPHIA – A dozen people were killed, including eight children, in a building fire on Wednesday morning in what city officials called “a huge loss of life”.

Hours after the blaze, Philadelphia firefighters warned the death toll could change as the building was secured and searched. On Wednesday evening, the department lowered its death toll to 12 against a first toll of 13.

The blaze is one of the city’s deadliest and its cause has yet to be determined. The authorities have promised to continue the investigation.

As the building burned down, eight people were able to escape. A child and another person were also taken to hospital for treatment, Craig Murphy, Philadelphia’s first deputy fire commissioner, told a press conference.

In a procession of seven police vehicles, including four vans, the bodies of the victims were removed from the burnt building on Wednesday evening.

The building was owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the country’s fourth largest public housing agency, and had been converted from a large townhouse into two apartments, Police Department Officer Miguel Torres told USA TODAY. Philadelphia.

“I’ve been here for 35 years now, and it’s probably one of the worst fires I’ve ever seen,” Murphy said.

Philadelphia firefighters responded at around 6:40 am and discovered an “intense fire” on the second floor of a three-story townhouse. They entered the building and found heavy smoke, heat, and limited view on each floor. Firefighters lifted ladders and sprayed water on the blaze, allowing them to enter the building and save a child. Another child found by crews did not survive, the department said.

It took about 50 minutes to bring the fire under control.

Rebecca Miller, who lives nearby, came out around 7 a.m. and could see smoke and fire engines. She said she also heard what “sounded like an adult woman screaming”.

The smoke detectors in the building ran on 10-year-old lithium batteries, but “none of them worked,” Murphy said.

The building was last inspected in May 2021 and the smoke detectors were then functioning properly, Philadelphia Housing Authority chairman Kelvin Jeremiah said in a Facebook statement.

“This unimaginable loss of life has shaken us all at PHA. It is too early for us to say more,” said Jeremiah.

At least 18 people lived in the upper apartment, which included the third floor and part of the second, and eight people lived in the lower unit, which included the first floor and the other part of the second, Murphy said. The deputy fire marshal could not say if this was more than what would be allowed, but called “huge numbers of people living in a duplex”.

Murphy said the Fire Marshal will investigate the cause of the blaze. Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also at the scene. Murphy said the fire was “not necessarily considered suspicious” but that the investigation would be “everyone on deck”.

“We plan to ensure that this enormous loss of human life does not happen in vain,” he said.

Fatal fire that occurred at the 800 block of N. 23rd St. in Philadelphia, PA.  Authorities have reported 13 deaths, including 7 children.  Joe Lamberti- GannettNJ USAToday Network

Early Wednesday, a few people from the Fairmount neighborhood gathered in a nearby corner. They were shocked, angry and sad.

“I knew some of these kids – I saw them playing around the corner,” said Dannie McGuire, 34, fighting back tears as she and Martin Burgert, 35, stood outside a house door. at the street corner.

“I can’t imagine how more people couldn’t get out – jumping out the window,” she said.

Ronald Umbrey, a longtime resident of Fairmount, remembers seeing children playing around the residence. He said people moved in and out quite often and the residence “just didn’t feel secure to me.”

“I lived here for 25 years and have never seen such a fire. I didn’t know anyone who lived there personally, but every time someone perishes in a fire it must have been serious,” Umbrey said .

Avery McDonald, a nursing student at Temple University, could not believe in the “destruction and loss of life.”

“I felt kind of helpless,” she said. “But I don’t know what could have been done to save these people.”

Aerial footage from WPVI-TV showed the top two floors of the building near the corner of an intersection burnt and blackened near the windows.

Jasmine Stokes said she heard some noise in the morning and a neighbor told her what happened later.

“It was a great place, and it’s a shame the kids lost their lives,” Stokes said. “I wonder if this could have been avoided somehow.”

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf posted a statement on Twitter saying he was “devastated” by the blaze.

“My heart goes out to the loved ones who remain to deal with this heartbreaking loss of life,” he said. “Thank you to the courageous first responders who brought the blaze under control.”

Mayor Jim Kenney, whose father was a firefighter, called the blaze “one of the most tragic days in our city’s history.”

“Losing so many children is just devastating.”

Contributing: Associated press