Amid a building boom, a North Philly property collapses, killing well-known contractor

A firefighter comforts an unidentified family member at the scene of a fatal building collapse at Bailey and Jefferson Streets in North Philadelphia, on June 4, 2018.

The violations from Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections had stacked up against the long-vacant property at Jefferson and Bailey Streets in North Philadelphia long before contractor Harvey Figgs reported to work Monday.

Camera icon Courtesy of the family
Harvey Figgs celebrates his 59th birthday at Morton’s The Steakhouse in the King of Prussia Mall on Sunday, June 3, 2018. The contractor died the next day, Monday, June 4, 2018, when a building collapsed on him while he was working at 2621 W. Jefferson St. in North Philadelphia.

The  exterior of the structure at 2621 W. Jefferson St., just east of Brewerytown, was not sound, L&I had deemed in May 2017. The property was “unsafe.” On a demolition permit issued Feb. 16, the building was to be demolished “by hand-method only,” permit records show, to comply with a “dangerous case.”

Which is why Figgs, a prominent Brewerytown contractor who turned 59 Sunday, entered the building Monday morning — to proceed with the demolition job that family members say he started last week. Hired to help tear down the 2,800-square-foot building in the neighborhood’s booming real estate market, Figgs was crushed under rocks and rubble when a wall at the back of the building collapsed shortly before 11 a.m. He was found moments later by his brother-in-law, Anthony Baker, who works on the block and rushed to the scene after hearing a “loud boom.”

“He hollered, ‘Help me! Help me! Help me!'” Baker said in a telephone interview Monday, recounting the moment he found Figgs. “And a bunch of other guys and I tried to dig the rocks off … but it was so many bricks that you just couldn’t get to him.”

Building Collapse

Site of building collapse at Jefferson and Bailey Streets, in North Philadelphia.
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Staff Graphic

By the time investigators arrived, Figgs had died. Several family members confirmed his death, although the Medical Examiner’s Office said it was still investigating. It was one day before the city’s observance of the fifth anniversary of the fatal collapse of a Salvation Army thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets in Center City.

A man who was working with Figgs was able to escape uninjured after being trapped, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said. An L&I spokeswoman said the city and the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration were investigating. No additional information was released.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
The scene of a building collapse at Bailey and Jefferson Streets in North Philadelphia on Monday, June 4, 2018.

As Philadelphia has experienced an unprecedented development boom, with property values surging and new real estate projects multiplying citywide, the collapse served as a stark reminder of the significant construction risks that still loom. The Brewerytown area, in particular, has experienced prodigious revitalization in the last few years, as developers of both large and small scale have inundated the once dis-invested area, snatching up lower-priced properties to redevelop and flip for profits.

In long-neglected neighborhoods such as Brewerytown, where dozens of homes and lots have sat vacant for years or decades, such redevelopment projects — while often jackpots for the developers who gamble on them — can present hazards to the contractors who work inside them. According to information provided by L&I in January, nearly 180 properties citywide were considered “imminently dangerous,” meaning they posed such significant health and safety concerns that they must be eradicated immediately. And 4,400 more at the time were deemed “unsafe” by L&I — still dangerous, but not critically unstable.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Police hold back an unidentified family member at the scene of a fatal building collapse at Bailey and Jefferson Streets in North Philadelphia on June 4, 2018.

According to multiple neighbors on the block, the property at 2621 W. Jefferson St. had sat vacant for decades, and had racked up a list of L&I violations along the way — ranging from being deemed “unsafe” in May 2017 to a violation as small as “exterior area weeds,” the latest, issued last October. The building was last purchased in April 2017 by Rollup LLC, a development group based in Churchville, Bucks County, for $260,000. (The adjacent property at 1501 N. Bailey St. was included in the deal.) Neither Valery Kravets or Alex Yevtushenko, whose names are registered to the LLC, according to state records, could be reached for comment.

The collapse of Rollup LLC’s building joins a growing list of buildings across Philadelphia that have unexpectedly collapsed in the last four years. Since 2014, news accounts show, at least a dozen buildings have unexpectedly collapsed — starting with at least eight buildings that buckled in March 2014, followed by the partial collapse of a North Philadelphia apartment building in 2015, a Southwest Philly warehouse in 2016, and then, earlier this month, the collapse of a home in Germantown, among other incidents.

None matched the tragedy of the deadly collapse that killed seven people five years ago at the Salvation Army building at 22nd and Market Streets in Center City. The five-year anniversary of that accident will be marked with a ceremony dedicating a memorial there at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

According to Karen Guss, a spokeswoman at L&I, only a small number of collapses occur in the course of construction. Many buildings collapse on their own.

Still, construction safety advocates say, each has become a painful reminder of what can go wrong amid Philadelphia’s development boom.

“It’s disturbing that collapses are still happening — especially on just about the five-year anniversary of the largest building collapse in Philadelphia history,” said Andrew Duffy, an attorney at Philadelphia-based Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, which represented victims in the Salvation Army collapse. “… There is no reason anybody should go to work at a demolition project and not come home.”

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
The scene of a building collapse at Bailey and Jefferson Streets in North Philadelphia on Monday, June 4, 2018.

In North Philadelphia on Monday afternoon, friends and family gathered outside Figgs’ home on 27th Street to pay condolences.

“He was like an uncle to me,” said Coley Townes, 40, who previously lived beside Figgs and who stopped by Monday to hug Figgs’ mother. “He was well-respected around here — it’s just sad that he died doing what he loved to do.”

But Figgs was more than just respected, those who knew him said. As a nearly 50-year resident of the Brewerytown area, he was a fixture.

In an interview with the Inquirer in April 2017, Figgs described moving to Brewerytown in the 1960s — not long after the city’s race riots — and settling into a neighborhood grappling with massive disinvestment and poverty. Eventually, as the area’s real estate market heated up, becoming one of the hottest markets in the city, Figgs found consistent work as a contractor, he said at the time, working with both large and small developers on new projects.

“I’ve done projects in Brewerytown because I’m a black contractor and I live in the 19121 zip code,” Figgs said in the interview. “Most of these guys give me work because I’ve been in the neighborhood for so long and it looks good when people see me with them and talking to them.”

Yet the gentrification in his neighborhood was not lost on him, he said, and he found himself often excited by the work he was receiving as a result of the real estate boom, but upset to see African American friends and relatives at risk of displacement as wealthier and whiter residents moved in.

That kind of concern for those around him, friends and relatives said, made him more than just a well-known contractor in his community.

“He would give you the shirt off his back to help a person,” said Shawn Speedwell, 55, who grew up with Figgs in Brewerytown. “Damn hard worker, damn good worker. He knew his job.”

Figgs’ older sister, Ann Baker, reached by phone Monday, agreed.

“He liked to entertain family and friends and have company over, and he loved his [four children] and loved his [two] grandkids,” Baker said. “He was responsible. He had a wonderful work ethic. Really able to do a lot physical and manual labor unlike anyone else I knew that was his age.”

And those who knew him best, she said, knew he loved a good steak. For dinner on his 59th birthday Sunday, surrounded by his children and grandchildren at Morton’s The Steakhouse in the King of Prussia Mall, he ordered a ribeye — his favorite — and celebrated another year.

Staff writers Joseph A. Gambardello, Mark Fazlollah, and Alfred Lubrano contributed to this article.