Image: Philly fire
Joseph Kaczmarek  /  AP
Firefighters gather at the scene of a house fire in southwest Philadelphia on Saturday, apparently caused by an exploding kerosene heater that killed seven people.
updated 12/27/2008 10:14:22 AM ET 2008-12-27T15:14:22

A duplex fire apparently caused by fuel spilling from an overfilled kerosene heater killed seven people in a basement that had only one exit, a survivor and firefighters said.

That injured survivor described standing in a shower with the water running in a desperate bid to escape the initial flames, then running for his life.

Three of the victims of the Friday night blaze were children, including a 1-year-old who was cradled in the arms of another victim, authorities said. Six of them were huddled together, and the seventh was found near the exit.

Four people survived the fire at a three-story, brick duplex in a working-class neighborhood close to Philadelphia International Airport, fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said.

Harris Murphy, who lives down the street, said he was visiting people in the house when the fire erupted.

Murphy, 35, who returned from a hospital wearing a hospital gown and bandages on his right hand and head, said a woman in the apartment tried to pour fuel into a kerosene heater, then picked it up and headed for the exist when it started spilling flames. The flaming liquid set the carpet on fire and several people tried to stamp out the flames.

Then, “the whole thing exploded,” he said.

Murphy said he and several others ran into the bathroom and stood in the shower with the water running, but thick smoke drove him out of the shower.

The whole basement was engulfed in flames and “I just ran through it,” he said.

Murphy, who called 911, said “it was a miracle of God” that he got out. He said one of the victims was his best friend of 25 years.

'Not one' smoke alarm
Ayers said the basement had only one exit, a code violation.

In addition to that violation, he said: “We went through every inch of this place. We have not found a smoke alarm, not one.”

Firefighters arrived within 3 minutes and it took them 30 minutes to bring the fire under control.

They said the residents of the upper part of the building weren’t home at the time.

The neighborhood is home to many of the city’s 15,000 Liberian immigrants. Soon after daybreak, Liberian community members began showing up to learn more about the victims.

Firefighters were trying to determine the relationships among the seven victims and the four people who escaped the basement fire. They believed the victims might have been from two families.

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