The harrowing incident prompted neighbors to rush to help those trapped in the rubble on the residential block, followed by first responders who battled challenging conditions in their efforts to free the victims. But two people could not be saved.
Here are the stories of those who died:
Connie Diu was in her kitchen eating leftover Indian food and watching a Chinese drama on her phone when her house came crumbling down.
She saw glass falling, walls collapsing, and thought it was an earthquake. Once she ran out the back door she called her mother, Sandy Luong. Was Brian home? Luong asked.
They kept calling his phone. He didn’t pick up.
Luong checked whether he had been at work — he was a researcher by day, and worked at Target at night. But he had a later shift. The calls were going straight to voice mail and the family knew the worst had happened.
The next day, Connie, 25, was back outside her family’s destroyed home as crews worked to recover the two bodies left in the rubble. Officials offered to call her when there was an update. “I’m staying here. I’m waiting for my brother,” she said.
“We’re just waiting cause he’s out there, you know, cold and alone. I just want to find him,” Connie said. “And we finally found him, they finally found him.”
She’s trying to remember Brian Diu, 28, for his life. But she also finds herself replaying everything from the fire and explosion that killed him. In those moments, she said, her mind goes blank and she feels “hollow.” She starts to think how he must have felt when it happened and stops herself.
“I’m not sure how I got really lucky, like I probably only got a scratch from the whole situation,” Connie said. “And then my brother didn’t get that.”
The family wishes they had physical reminders of Brian, Connie said, but everything was destroyed. They don’t have his phone, his clothing, his baby pictures.
“We literally lost everything,” she said. “There’s nothing we can hold on to to remember him.”
Brian’s father, Steven Diu, remembered that Brian liked wearing his red Phillies baseball cap, so they bought one to put in his casket, Connie said. She went shopping to pick out clothes for his burial. She remembers seeing him wear V-necks, sweats, or jeans, but “he’s not really materialistic,” she said, still using the present tense.
Connie said nothing really bothered her brother. He was the lighthearted one and jokester in the family. He lived in the home that collapsed with his sister, Connie; his brother, Christopher Diu, 15; and his parents, Steven Diu, 60, and Luong, 50.
Brian and his siblings are first-generation Americans. Their parents came from Vietnam with nothing, in hopes of building a better future.
Brian and his mother would tease each other about their weight, Connie Diu said. When the two were younger and shared a bedroom, she would watch him play Kingdom Hearts on PlayStation 2, she recalled.
In the summer, they would go to the park, by Geno’s Steaks, and run around. While he played basketball with friends, she would watch or try to annoy him “because,” she said, “that’s what little sisters do.”
He cared deeply about his friends and family, Connie said, and wanted to make their parents proud.
“I just know what kind of person he is, how his heart is. He understands parents can be hard on kids and stuff, but we understand where they’re coming from,” Connie said. “He really just thinks of other people’s feelings before him. He put everyone else before him.”
Brian’s close friend Jim Nghieu talked about how Brian was able to balance being open-minded and empathetic with tough honesty.
“When there was kind of a lull in my life, he said I was better than what I was doing,” said Nghieu, 29, of South Philadelphia. “And that is one of the reasons I started going to law school.”
Nghieu said he believed Brian was going to try to start medical school in 2020.
The two talked every day as part of a group Google Hangouts chat of five longtime friends. Although no one else picked an avatar, Brian changed his to a laughing smiley face emoji. The friends haven’t deleted him from the chat.
Brian loved Macallan scotch whiskey and untoasted raisin bagels, Nghieu said. He liked to stay home, opting to play video games and watch Korean dramas.
“He was very much a homebody,” Nghieu said.
Connie said the family is focused on planning his funeral and grappling with how this could have happened.
“We want to find justice for him,” Connie said. “If something happened, there was a gas leak or someone forgot to do something, didn’t do their job right, he’s the one that had to pay for it. … You imagine your house is the safest place but this happens, you’re traumatized to even stay in your house now.”
A service is planned for Tuesday, Dec. 31, at Choi Funeral Home at 247 N. 12th St.
The second victim was Rudi Kambong, 65, who lived in a home adjacent to the rowhouses that collapsed entirely. He and his family rented the second and third floors of the building.
Kambong is survived by his wife, three daughters, and his grandchildren, according to an online post raising funds for the family. Kambong’s family members did not return requests to be interviewed.
Before Kambong’s body was recovered, his daughter, Fikke Kambong, told The Inquirer through a friend, who translated that her father had a stroke about a year ago, was on bed rest on the second floor of the home, and wasn’t able to move or speak much. Officials weren’t able to enter the home to make a rescue for the first two days because of intense heat and structural instability.