Man died in 'brutal fall' after fire escape collapse

Albert Suh, 22, died in the collapse of a third-floor fire escape at the Bell House on South 22d Street. His roommates, women 25 and 26, suffered broken backs.
Albert Suh, 22, died in the collapse of a third-floor fire escape at the Bell House on South 22d Street. His roommates, women 25 and 26, suffered broken backs. (            ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 15, 2014

PHILADELPHIA The apartment was filled with a few dozen friends celebrating a birthday, and as Saturday drew close to midnight, the three roommates stepped onto the narrow fire escape and into the warm night to catch a smoke and a quiet moment.

Before long, they felt an ominous shift.

"They said they were out there no longer than a minute or two when they felt it move under their feet," Detective Richard Bova of Central Detectives said Monday.

There was little time to react, he said. The iron rails collapsed, the square platform separated from the wall, and the three friends plummeted four stories into the alley below.

Albert Suh, 22, a recent Pennsylvania State University graduate, fell head-first and never regained consciousness.

"It was a brutal fall," said Bova, who is handling the investigation into the fatal accident on South 22d Street at Locust Street.

Suh was pronounced dead at Hahnemann University Hospital. His roommates, women ages 25 and 26, suffered broken backs and are recuperating at area hospitals. Police did not release their names.

City inspectors cited the building's fire escapes Monday for safety violations. Rebecca Swanson, spokeswoman for the Department of Licenses and Inspections, said Monday it was unclear when the fire escape on the Rittenhouse Square-area building was last inspected.

The city requires L&I to regularly inspect high-rises, schools, and "special-assembly occupancy" buildings such as nightclubs. But the city is not required to inspect fire escapes on smaller buildings unless a complaint is made, Swanson said, which means it may not have been inspected since its construction - more than 50 years ago.

Landlords and property owners are responsible for maintaining safe fire escapes, she said, including testing for how much weight a fire escape can hold, repairing damage, and keeping the escapes clear.

"We're working with the owner to determine what maintenance he's done," she said.

L&I conducted a review of the building Monday, Swanson said, and issued violations concerning fire escape stairways, landings and steps. Residents were allowed to remain, though the fire escapes have been blocked temporarily. City officials are working with the owner on a plan to overhaul the emergency exits, Swanson said.

The building is owned by Khorram Group L.L.P., which bought it in 2002, records show. Company officials could not be reached for comment, but Swanson said owners gave the city an engineering report Monday that will help determine the next step.

The Bell House, designed by the architect Horace Trumbauer and built in 1906, is on the National Register of Historic Places and was converted to apartments after it was sold in 1944.

Swanson said there were no previous known safety violations there. Though L&I officials sometimes conduct checks of safety features in buildings, she said, the city is not equipped to perform tests on how much weight a platform can hold.

"I don't know that a visual inspection would have uncovered anything in this case," she said.

In 2009, in the months after a 25-year-old man died after falling from a fire escape outside an apartment above Monk's Cafe at 16th and Spruce Streets, L&I began conducting spot checks of smaller apartment buildings and issued violations to a number of landlords.

With more than 500,000 properties in the city and thousands of fire escapes, Swanson said, the city's property maintenance code is meant to serve as a manual informing property owners of their responsibilities. City officials have also said they rely on tenants to report concerns.

City Council members have at times proposed requiring owners of smaller buildings to submit regular structural-engineering reports, similar to laws in New York and Chicago. Fran Burns, a former L&I commissioner, has said the department should perform routine checks of smaller apartment buildings.

Suh, from Leonia, N.J., graduated from Penn State last year with degrees in economics and science. He worked as an analyst for JPMorgan Chase & Co., friends said.

Former classmates described him as an intellectual with a good heart.

"We could just talk out anything that was going on - politically, economically, socially," said student Leo Dillinger. "We could just put anything under the microscope."

Nchewi Imoke, a former classmate, recalled taking Suh to Baltimore for a performance by the comedian Louis C.K.

"He was unique, he was quirky, he was really a gentle and loving guy," Imoke said of Suh.

Ryan Kristobak, 23, said friends admired Suh for his positive attitude and devotion to friends. He said Suh had a pet ferret, Rexy.

"He always had it with him," Kristobak said. "It was always kind of funny to see how much love he had for that ferret."


asteele@phillynews.com

610-313-8113

@AESteele

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