Man dies after falling in empty building; family struggles to find closure

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In November, Harriet Gray’s father, Hilo Nguyen entered a building on the 700 block of West Philadelphia Street  with the owner. Nguyen fell through the first floor and landed in the basement and later died from his injuries. “I’m still trying to take it all in,” said Gray.

At the time the building was not condemned, but it was marked with a red “X” sign. “The red “X” that you see on the buildings are an indication to public safety folks that whether or not they should go into the building. It doesn’t necessarily mean the building has been condemned,” said Steven Buffington, Deputy Director of Permits, Planning and Zoning for York City. “If there’s a valid life safety issue for the public, emergency personnel will do what they can to make a rescue, if they are able to. But it’s a definite indicator to the firefighters, to the police officers, say if they’re chasing folks and somebody runs into one of these buildings, they know that running in there may not be in their own best interests,” said Buffington.

“What I don’t understand is, if it’s not safe for the police to enter, or the fire department to enter, why is there even a chance for the public to enter it?” asked Gray.

“We learned that he had fallen about nine or ten feet and hit concrete, and that is all we knew that day. We are still unsure of exactly how or why,” said Gray. She may never know why her father fell.

Harriet and her family members asked city officials to demolish the building.”I would like to see more action on these buildings that are sitting there and not being used. Or, if they are being used, that they are actually safe inside,” said Gray.

“After the accident that caused the unfortunate death I did visit the property,” said Buffington. “I posted it as unsafe, and actually did condemn it as an unsafe structure at that time.”

Days later a man set that same building on fire and it collapsed to the ground. The building took two others down with it, including a building Nguyen owned. Police charged Keith Hetrick with burglary and arson for the fire.

“I guess we will never know, because there is nothing there. I know it sounds weird but I wanted to see where he fell, to know what happened, how it happened,” said Gray.

Financial burden
City Officials say the cost of securing and demolishing empty buildings is straining their budget. “If we are talking about demolition. The cost of demolition of a city row home can cost &25,000 to upwards of $75,000 depending on the property,” said Buffington. “That gets crazy. There’s no money budgeted for that. We are already through our demolition budget for the year, so we need to be able to hold property owners responsible to take care of their own properties.”

City Council members recently approved changes to current property maintenance code that would force property owners to close properties themselves. “Before it was: if the property owner failed to do, the city shall do it. We’ve changed that language to: the city may do it. That’s in the hope that we will be able to go to court and get injunctions and orders from the court for property owners to do what they are responsible to do. It’s our hope that by changing the language in the ordinance it will give our solicitor teeth when he goes to court, to try to force these irresponsible property owners to become responsible.”

Buffington said finances will not get in the way of public safety. “If it’s not secured, we do issue orders to the owner and have them secure it. If they don’t secure it, we wind up sending public works crews out.”