Man dead in Philadelphia fire escape collapse

The John C. Bell House at 22d and Locust Streets, where a man fellto his death and two women were hurt when a fire-balcony railing collapsed Saturday night.
The John C. Bell House at 22d and Locust Streets, where a man fellto his death and two women were hurt when a fire-balcony railing collapsed Saturday night. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 14, 2014

PHILADELPHIA A 22-year-old man was killed and two women seriously injured when they plunged four stories after a fire-escape railing outside a Center City apartment building collapsed around midnight Saturday.

The three were attending a birthday party and had stepped onto the  fire escape   outside the historic John C. Bell apartment building on the 200 block of South 22d Street to smoke cigarettes when the iron safety railings gave way, police said. They fell more than 30 feet to the pavement below.

"It's an old city with a lot of buildings that rely on fire escapes," said Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development. Any renter in Philadelphia concerned about a fire escape should consult the landlord and ask when it was last inspected, he said.

The Bell House, built in 1906, fronts on Locust and 22d Streets. The fire escape is above a back alley.  

The collapse startled neighbors with a crash that led several people to call 911. One neighbor, whose house on St. James Place shares the alley with the apartment building, described the sound as a loud boom, and said his girlfriend thought something had fallen in their house. He said emergency vehicles swarmed the area almost immediately, and he went out his back door to see what happened.

"I came out and saw someone being put on a stretcher," he said.

The women, 25 and 26, suffered broken backs but were in stable condition, police said.

The man was taken to Hahnemann University Hospital with severe head and neck injuries. He was pronounced dead at 5:43 a.m., police said. No names had been released pending family notification.

Members of the city Department of Licenses and Inspections were investigating Sunday. Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Nutter, said that the department does not routinely inspect fire escapes and that property owners are responsible for their maintenance.

The building was sold in 2003 to Khorram Group L.L.P. of Newtown Square, according to property records. Company officials could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The city has requested an engineering report by Monday from Khorram Group, specifying what must be done to make the fire escape safe. All other means of access to the building's fire escapes were boarded up Sunday after the accident.

 Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, said the city wanted to review the engineer's report before taking any further steps.

City officials said Sunday evening there had been no previous safety violations at the building.

Outside the building, piles of bricks and bent, rusted metal lay strewn across the ground, with pieces of caution tape draped across the alley's metal gate. The platform of the fire escape that fell apart remained attached to the building, but the metal strut that had propped it up had fallen, and the railings that had surrounded it were on the ground.

Neighbors said they occasionally saw people standing on the fire escapes.

A 25-year-old man was killed in August 2009 when the railing on a fire escape failed at the back of the building that houses Monk's Café at 16th and Spruce Streets.

That accident seriously injured a woman and led the city to begin spot code-compliance checks of Philadelphia's smaller apartment buildings.

The John C. Bell House, named after a former state attorney general who lived there, is on the National Register of Historic Places and was designed by architect Horace Trumbauer. The Colonial revival building was a single-family home for decades. Bell's sons, John C. Bell Jr. and Bert Bell, also lived there. Bell Jr. was governor of Pennsylvania, and his brother co-founded the Eagles and served as commissioner of the NFL.

The building was sold in 1944 and converted into apartments.


asteele@phillynews.com

610-313-8113

@AESteele

Inquirer staff writers Michael Vitez and Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman contributed to this article.

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