No Inspection in More Than 50 Years for Fire Escape that Collapsed, Killing Man

The fire escape that collapsed early Sunday morning, killing one man and critically injuring two women, may not have been inspected in more than 50 years.

Inspections are only required at the time of installation or when someone complains, according to a spokeswoman with Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I). The accident, which happened early Sunday morning, sent the three victims, all in their twenties, plunging 35 feet to the ground.

Today L&I did complete an inspection of the entire building, the historic John C. Bell apartment building on the corner of 22nd and Locust Street.

From the post-accident inspection, L&I listed a total of five violations on its website for the property located at 2145 Locust Street. Inspectors labeled the floor and ceiling of all of the building's fire escapes, its landings and steps, and the entire fire tower as fully or partially deteriorated, and imminently dangerous. In addition, the building's annual fire alarm certification was not up to code.

L&I spokeswoman Rebecca Swanson says the department is not required to inspect the fire escapes of thousands of older buildings in the city, including the John C. Bell apartment building, unless a complaint is filed.

"The Property Maintenance Code does not require inspections of fire escapes on a building such as this; L&I inspects by complaint. We have never received a complaint about the fire escape at 2145 Locust, so it has not been inspected by our property maintenance inspectors," Swanson said.

According to Swanson, the fire escape should have been inspected at the time that it was installed and is required to be in compliance with the code that was in effect at the time that it was constructed.

"It would have been inspected at the time of its installation, which we believe is upwards of 50 years ago. This is part of the ongoing investigation," Swanson said.

The John C. Bell complex is on the city's national historic registry. It was built in 1906 for John C. Bell, who served as the attorney general of Pennsylvania. While L&I was unable to confirm when the fire escape was installed, national register documents indicate the building's structure may not have been altered since the 1940's, when the now defunct fire tower was reportedly installed.

Construction accident and personal injury attorney Robert Mongeluzzi of Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, PC, said it is simply impossible for L&I to inspect all of the city's buildings that have fire escapes.

"We have hundreds of thousands of structures in this city, many that have fire escapes," Mongeluzzi said. "It is impossible for the city to go out and inspect all of them. What it needs to do is have a set of regulations that imposes the burden on the owner to make sure the property is adequately inspected and maintained."

According to the city's Office of Property Assessment records, the building is owned by the Khorram Group LLP, who purchased the property in late 2002. The Khorram Group is responsible for maintaining the property in accordance with the Philadelphia Property Maintenance Code.

The property owners are also responsible for conducting a full engineering study of the fire escape's load-bearing capacity, to make sure it is up to code.

According to Mongeluzzi, there has been some speculation that the collapse may have been due to an overload of its weight capacity. Mongeluzzi called that idea absurd.

"A life safety fire escape has to be able to support everybody in the building," he said. "The idea that this was overloaded because three people were on it is ridiculous."

City officials are now awaiting an engineer report from the Khorram Group in order to determine their next course of action. Swanson said  the building's owners are cooperating and that the report should be completed no later than Tuesday.

According to Swanson, there have not been any other property maintenance violations in the property's 100-plus year history. L&I has also inspected the interior of the building and found it to be safe for residents to remain in the building while the collapse investigation continues. The fire escapes, however, have been closed-off since the incident.

In order to prompt better maintenance of fire escapes in the city, Mongeluzzi said the city could adopt the 2012 International Fire Code, which requires an inspection by an engineer or registered design professional every five years, or as required by the fire code official.

Police have identified the deceased victim as Albert Suh of Leonia, N.J. According to police, Suh was attending a party at the address when the collapse occurred, but that he did not live in the building. The two women who were injured in the collapse reportedly lived in the building, but their names have not yet been released.

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