PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) —
The pressure is on for Philadelphia Fire Escapes lawmakers to tighten lax inspection laws which critics warn have resulted in catastrophic fire escape collapses across the city.
For the first time on camera, the victims involved in a fatal accident in Center City are speaking out to Action News saying the death of 22-year-old Albert Suh should have been prevented.
Remnants of police tape in an alley at 22nd and Locust mark the spot where one life was lost and two others narrowly survived a devastating collapse on the night of January 12, 2014.
“It was like the loudest rumbling crash I had ever heard,” Laura O’Brien said.
It was O’Brien’s first time standing on the balcony with two roommates, during a party they threw for a friend’s birthday.
But the celebration quickly turned tragic.
“My arms went over my head. I went straight down so quickly,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien survived the fall.
She broke her back and fell into a hole beneath the stairway.
One other roommate was also seriously injured.
“I could hear my roommate Nancy yelling,” O’Brien said.
Albert Suh did not survive.
“The first thing I thought was that’s not possible,” Suh’s older brother Min said. “I’ve lost my brother.”
Three months later on April 11th, City Council’s Committee on Public Safety held a hearing on the collapse.
“It is a statement to me that our fire professionals won’t even use fire escapes because of the condition or the varying condition they may be in,” Councilman Curtis Jones said.
It was revealed there are absolutely no requirements for inspecting emergency fire escapes in Philadelphia, even structures that are 20, 30, 50 years old.
“We don’t need any more tragedies here,” Councilman Bobby Henon said.
“These are accidents waiting to happen. They have happened before this incident occurred in other parts of the city and they will happen again,” attorney Shanin Specter said.
Specter represents O’Brien and Suh and is suing the landlord, who says he’s not responsible.
An attorney for Kline and Specter testified at that hearing, questioning why Philadelphia has not adopted the current 2012 International Fire Code. That code requires an inspection every five years. But instead, the city still follows the outdated 2009 version which lacks inspection standards.
“They are taking their lives into their hands. This is something that needs to be addressed and addressed now,” Specter said.
Depositions revealed the four floor fire escape on 22nd and Locust had not been inspected in at least 12 years and would most likely have malfunctioned in the case of an emergency, possibly carrying multiple tenants and even first responders.
“It was grossly structurally unsound for it to collapse with only three people on it,” Specter said.
We took those concerns to the Public Safety Chairman, Councilman Curtis Jones.
“We mourn their loss as well as they do. And we are going to do something so it doesn’t happen again,” Jones said.
Jones agrees fire escapes need to be inspected at least every five years.
“This could have been prevented,” Min Suh said.
The question is who will do the inspections and who will pay for it.
“We pass laws all the time, but sometimes people ignore that. So we want to be able to pass a law, have it paid for, and then have it enforced,” Jones said.
We pushed Jones on a date for that new law.
He said he thinks he can get funding for inspections in the budget starting July 1st to train inspectors and he hopes to pass a bill within the fiscal year.
At issue is who would pay for the inspections.
Council is considering the landlords who will pass that expense on to renters. But over a five year period with multiple tenants, Specter estimates the cost should be minimal, just pennies a month to ensure residents safety.