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Friends mourn 7 who died in fire

The Philadelphia blaze began when kerosene heater spilled and exploded, officials say.

A woman mourns for friends killed in a Philadelphia house fire Friday night. Seven people died in the blaze.

AP PHOTO

PHILADELPHIA — Dozens of Liberian immigrants gathered Saturday at the site of a devastating house fire where they said seven members of their community died after an accident involving a kerosene heater.

Authorities have not yet released the names of the victims, but fire survivor Harris Murphy said those trapped in the basement blaze were, like him, part of the large Liberian enclave in southwest Philadelphia.

The blaze broke out around 10:45 p.m. Friday in a three-story brick duplex, killing four adults and three children, including a 1-year-old who was cradled in the arms of another victim, fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said.

Four people survived the fire, including Murphy, 35, who lives down the street but was watching a movie with others at the home when the flames erupted.

Fire marshals have not yet released the cause of the blaze. But Murphy said it started after a woman added fuel to a kerosene heater and, when it became too hot, tried to move it outside through the basement’s only door.

Some of the flaming liquid spilled out and set the carpet on fire, and several people in the room tried to stamp out the flames, Murphy said.

The heater then “exploded,” he said.

Murphy said he ran into a basement bathroom with another man and some children, got in the tub and turned on the shower to try to wait out the flames until firefighters arrived. After a few moments, he said he decided to make a break for it because the smoke was growing thick.

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

After making it out, Murphy called authorities and told them there were children trapped in the shower. He was expecting that they would be found alive, but learned hours later that seven people had perished. One victim was his best friend of 25 years, Murphy said.

Some Liberians who came to the house Saturday morning did not know who died but, because of the home’s location, feared they would know one or more of the victims. The neighborhood is home to many of the city’s 15,000 Liberian immigrants.

The names of the dead — and the survivors — quickly spread through cell phone calls and word-of-mouth after Murphy and victims’ relatives arrived at the site. Fire officials would not immediately confirm any of the names.

Anthony Kesselly, president of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, lives nearby and said he knew one victim very well. Murphy, who moved from Liberia to the U.S. in 1996, said “it was a miracle of God” that he escaped. Fire officials said six victims were found huddled together in the front of the basement, one of them cradling the baby. The seventh was found near the basement door. No causes of death were released.

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