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Child playing with lighter near Christmas tree may have started deadly Philadelphia fire

The possible cause is included in a search warrant for the row house fire that killed 12 people, officials said.
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Investigators are looking into whether a child playing with a lighter near a Christmas tree ignited the inferno in a Philadelphia row house that left a dozen people dead.

The revelation that "a child age 5 or under" may have been involved in one of the city's deadliest fires in decades was included in a search warrant application filed in Common Pleas Court after the blaze Wednesday morning.

Details of the warrant were first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“I can confirm that this detail was included in the warrant that was submitted,” Jane Roh, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, told NBC News.

"But this is not a criminal investigation. All we did was submit paperwork that would allow investigators access to the scene. This is an investigation that is being led by the Philadelphia Fire Department and the ATF," Roh said, referring to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The row house in the city's Fairmount section, which is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, was divided into two apartments, the agency said.

Nichole Tillman, a spokeswoman for the Housing Authority, referred all questions to the Philadelphia fire marshal's office, which is leading the investigation and has not yet officially determined the cause of the blaze, which killed eight children.

Special Agent Matthew Varisco, who heads the ATF’s office in Philadelphia, said at a news conference earlier Thursday that investigators "haven't ruled anything out."

Investigators said they are also looking into why none of the battery-powered smoke alarms in the row house were working.

A search of available property records turned up no reports of code violations at the building, which was built in 1920.

Eight people lived in one unit that spanned the first and second floors of the row house, while 18 lived in another unit that took up the second and third floors, the fire department said.

“That is a tremendous amount of people to be living in a duplex,” First Deputy Fire Commissioner Craig Murphy said Wednesday after the last flames were doused.

The Housing Authority has not commented on the number of people living in the row house.

Fast-moving flames were devouring a second-floor kitchen and climbing a stairway connecting the second and the third floors when firefighters, alerted by a 911 call, arrived at the three-story building at 869 N. 23rd St. around 6:40 a.m. Wednesday.

It took about 50 minutes to get the blaze under control, and firefighters were able to rescue a child, authorities said. But the child did not survive.

Two people remained in critical condition Thursday, authorities said. One was taken to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the other to Temple University Hospital, officials said.

“We are devastated by the tragic loss of life — several of whom are children — and my thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the victims. I cannot express how unimaginable this is for loved ones,” Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday.