With the acrid smell of charred timber hanging in the air, Philadelphia firefighters yesterday canvassed the block where a hairdresser and her four young children died the day before. They were working to prevent the next fatal fire.
Members of the city's fire-prevention unit handed out smoke alarms and advice to residents of the 5900 block of Walnut Street where Cornellry Robinson, 25, and her four children died early Sunday in their ramshackle two-story rowhouse.
"If fire deaths like this don't drive home the point to use smoke detectors, I don't know what will," said Lt. Mike Grant.
After their work was done in West Philadelphia, the firefighters moved to a North Philadelphia neighborhood where a predawn fire early yesterday killed Shirley Parks, 73, and injured three other people.
Firefighters found one smoke detector inside the house on the 1900 block of Ingersoll Street, but it lacked a battery.
"We put the battery in, it worked," said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers.
Sixteen people in Philadelphia have died in fires this year.
"That's the theme: No working smoke detectors for all 16 victims," said Ayers.
"It's just sad stuff, man," Ayers said at the scene of the Ingersoll Street fire. "People don't have to die like this."
Last year, Philadelphia tallied 52 fatalities, including 10 arson deaths.
Though fire deaths rise and fall - there were 32 fatalities in 2002 - what remains consistent is that most were preventable, and the causes often were associated with poverty or irresponsible behavior.
Fire officials attributed the last two deadly fires to overburdened electrical systems.
On Sunday, Robinson and her four children died while sleeping together in a bed inside a house that had an illegal electrical hook-up. Fire officials described the house as a maze of space heaters and multiple outlet strips.
Yesterday's fire on Ingersoll Street also occurred in a house with no gas or oil heat and a tangle of electrical cords and space heaters. Officials said an extension cord was the source of the fire.
The other fire deaths this year were also attributed to carelessness.
The first fire death of this year was the victim of a fire late last year: A 75-year-old woman who was on oxygen - but still smoked.
Officials said a fire that killed a couple and their 3-year-old son last month was caused by scent candles that were left burning even after everyone had gone to bed.
On Feb. 3, a 68-year-old woman and a 42-year-old man were killed in a fire that started on the stove.
Ayers said the man started cooking and then passed out from being intoxicated. The woman upstairs couldn't escape because she was bedridden.
A fire early Saturday started with a 28-year-old woman smoking in bed. Rather than flee, she tried to douse the flames with glasses of water from her bathroom. She succumbed to the smoke. Firefighters found the bathtub running.
Last year, of the 42 accidental deaths, eight were caused by electrical problems and another eight were caused by smoking. Eight more were caused by children playing with matches.
Six were caused by cooking and another six by portable electric heaters. Five were caused by open flames, such as candles. And one was caused by a portable kerosene heater.
Grant, the fire prevention officer, expressed frustration that the department often installed smoke detectors that the homeowners neglected to maintain with a fresh battery. Lately, the department has begun installing them with lithium batteries, which may last up to a decade - but at three times the cost as an alkaline battery.
Grant encouraged homeowners who want a free smoke detector installed in their house to call the fire prevention division at 215-686-1176.