Fire-escape plunge kills 1, shuts building

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Bart Clark, building inspector from L&I, puts up a notice of code violations on the front door of Monk's Cafe following a fire-escape collapse at an apartment above. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)

NOTE: THIS STORY HAS BEEN CLARIFIED.

The sounds of plates rustled Chrissie Loftus from her slumber early yesterday in her Center City apartment.

Then, sometime after 2 a.m., the 26-year-old piano teacher heard screams.

As an urban dweller living over the bustling Monk's Cafe, on 16th Street near Spruce, there was no cause for alarm, she thought.

Until, that is, Philadelphia police pounded on her door about 3:30 a.m. to inform her of the horror that had occurred outside her apartment: Two twentysomethings had fallen four stories from the fire escape to the ground below, resulting in the death of a man and the critical injuring of his female companion.

The two had been leaning against an iron railing whose bolts had been "pulled out of the wall," said Scott Mulderig, chief of emergency services at Licenses & Inspections. One or both of the victims had hit an air conditioning unit in the fall.

The man, identified by police last night as Steven Lee, 25, was pronounced dead at the scene. The injured woman, whose identity authorities said yesterday they still did not know, was taken to Hahnemann University Hospital, police said. She was in critical condition last night at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Lee had been living in a third-floor apartment with a woman who was not the victim.

Investigators believe that the railing malfunction was an accident, they said.

Fergus "Fergie" Carey, co-owner of Monk's, called the accident "a tragedy."

In Monk's 12-year existence, the event is by far the worst nightmare at the location, Carey said. "There were bodies in the alley last night."

The freak accident has resulted in a shutdown of the building, a location known for its storied restaurants. It's the site where Steve Poses, a pioneer in the Philadelphia restaurant renaissance, opened Frog, later replaced with the more populist 16th Street Bar and Grill.

L&I officials found code violations and additional loose railings in the fire escape. As a result, the four-story building, comprised of the restaurant and 16 apartment units, has been shut down until it can be brought up to code, Mulderig said.

The building's owner was identified as Sidney Brotman, according to city real estate records. He owns six other properties in the city, L&I officials said. Real-estate records list the owner as 264 S. 16th Street Realty. It has been owned by that entity since 1995 and there are no tax liens against the property.

Agency investigators also found the structure of the fire tower, the roof and other railings to have "deteriorated," Mulderig said. Exit signs and emergency lighting were also missing from the building.

The property's owner has been cited in the past for similar violations, he said.

The area where the two people fell 40 feet had been a pigeon nest until recently, said Loftus, who, with her cats Alice and Ani, is staying with a friend in Northeast Philadelphia. "It's not the nicest of fire escapes," she said, citing numerous bird droppings and abundance of feathers in the area.

Mulderig pleaded with property owners by pointing out six recent and potentially dangerous incidents around the city where sections of facades crumbled to the ground: "It is really important that the owners maintain the property," he said. "It would make my job a lot easier."

Thirteen residents including Loftus were told at a noontime meeting yesterday held by L&I that they had to evacuate their apartments by 5 p.m. Most residents found shelter with friends or family, packing for a week or so, but leaving behind furnishings and other items.

One man decided to simply move out and called his family, who drove two hours from Hazleton, Luzerne County, to take him home.

His relatives, including his parents, and members of the Office of Emergency Management, hiked in and out of the building, carrying lamps, boxes and black trash bags filled with items and packing it into a white minivan. The resident declined comment because, frankly, he was busy.

Carey and other restaurant employees were busy inside the restaurant preparing for the shutdown. He said that he hoped to have the business up and running tonight by closing off the back section, about 600 square feet.

But he's a big dreamer, city officials said.

Carey will need to erect a fire-rated wall to close off the section and, one official said, "That's gonna take them a good three to four days to get the bar back up."