The century-old, three-story brick rowhouse belonged to the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which bought it in 1967, according to property records. It had been divided into two units: one on the first floor and half of the second; the other sharing the second floor and taking up the third. Altogether, Mr. Murphy said, it appeared that 26 people were in the building at the time of the fire, eight in the lower unit and 18 in the upper one.
“That is a tremendous amount of people to be living in a duplex,” said Mr. Murphy, though he emphasized that this was not a definitive number. He said that eight people who were in the building escaped the fire on their own.
The city initially reported the death toll as 13 but revised that figure on Wednesday evening.
An official with the housing authority said it was unclear why so many people were in the building. This would have been “too high” a number of occupants for an apartment, Dinesh Indala, the executive vice president for housing operations at the housing authority, told reporters. He did not specify how many people could legally live in the unit, and also cautioned that much was still unknown about who was inside at the time of the fire.
“It’s the holidays,” he said. “I don’t know if they had people coming and visiting. I have no idea.”
Jenna Collins, a housing attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, said that the maximum occupancy for the largest units operated by the housing authority was 12 people. But she said that complications of life can render the rules less than hard-and-fast at times; for example, if a person in a unit suddenly gains custody of several children, the family is typically not evicted while they wait for a larger place to open up.
In any case, as the mayor and others cautioned, it was too early to make any judgments about the living arrangements in the apartment.
“You don’t know the circumstances of each and every family,” Mr. Kenney said at the news conference. “Maybe there were people or relatives that needed to be sheltered.”