Early Sunday, when a thin iron railing broke loose on a dark fire escape at 16th and Spruce Streets, events were set in motion affecting dozens of lives and, in some ways, the entire city.

A family would lose a 25-year-old son, who fell four stories into a courtyard. The young woman who fell with him would be rushed to the hospital and then leave after only one day, having miraculously survived.

The staff of Monk's Cafe, a popular bar-restaurant on the first floor of the building, would be traumatized by what they saw. And the Department of Licenses and Inspections would be thrown into a frenzy, responding to questions and accusations about the century-old building's code violations.

The city relies on property owners to maintain their buildings, and conducts inspections largely in response to complaints, Fran Burns, the L&I commissioner, said yesterday.

Until this accident, the city had no record of conditions in the building, which has 16 apartments and 13 tenants.

Monk's, which is likely to remain closed at least until Friday, meets city codes except for a few minor problems, Burns said: "The restaurant and bar are pretty well-maintained."

The city requires L&I to regularly inspect high-rises, schools, and "special-assembly occupancy" buildings such as nightclubs. "But we can't get to all 548,000 properties in the city in a year," given the limitations of personnel and budget, Burns said.

The department receives about 30,000 complaints each year.

"There is real value to citizens' being our eyes and ears," Burns said. "We are always going to need that. But it's also reactive and begs the question, what else is out there?"

Last summer, during her interview for commissioner, Burns said, she suggested that L&I routinely check multifamily dwellings. "This is something that the department stopped doing about eight or 10 years ago. I felt it was something we should do."

Councilmen Jim Kenney and Frank DiCicco have introduced a bill to require owners of buildings of more than five stories to periodically submit structural-engineering reports certifying that their properties are in good condition. The bill is similar to laws in New York City and Chicago.

Even with that regulation, however, small buildings such as the one where Steven Lee, 25, died would not be affected. The responsibility, both financial and moral, would rest with the landlord, said Kenney.

After going through the building at 264 S. 16th St. over the last two days, Burns said, multiple structural problems were found, from minor to severe. In addition to the damaged railing, she said, inspectors saw passageways to the fire escapes blocked by debris, ceilings "in danger of collapse," and loose bricks on the exterior walls.

The building, a former hotel that for a time was a whiskey-drop during Prohibition, is owned by Bruce Brotman of Huntingdon Valley.

Brotman said he regularly maintains the building and replaced the roof several years ago.

"I can't tell you how distraught I am," he said. "I feel so bad that anyone was hurt, let alone that anyone was killed, I can't express it enough." He has not spoken to Lee's family, he said, but "my heart really goes out to them. I have a family and kids the same age. This is not about business. It's not about money. I care about these people. I really care."

The building has been in the family for more than 20 years, said Brotman, who has spent the last two days working with L&I to address every issue the inspectors identified. Burns confirmed that Brotman had been cooperating.

"He's a good guy," said Fergus Carey, co-owner of Monk's. A career pub man with long silver hair spilling over his shoulders, Carey said, "Any time we have a problem, he's down here right away."

Monk's owners recalled Brotman's father, Sidney, fondly. The family owns two real estate companies and at least six properties, none of which has current violations, according to L&I. Property taxes are current, records show.

"The randomness of it," said Tom Peters, Monk's other owner, as he and Carey sat in Monk's darkened dining room yesterday while passersby stopped to gawk at the site of the accident. "It's devastating. Two people leaning on a railing and it collapses."

Peters and Carey have worked together for 12 1/2 years operating the intimate wood-paneled establishment, which specializes in Belgian beers.

The accident was discovered shortly after the bar closed at 2 a.m., when a bartender heard a hissing noise, apparently caused when Lee hit an air-conditioning unit during his fall. The bartender walked out to the courtyard to find the couple; she frantically called 911, then Carey.

Yesterday, the medical examiner said that Lee died from blunt head trauma, and that his death was accidental.

"We're still waking up from this nightmare," said Peters.

Several of the tenants are regulars at the cafe, but the owners said they did not know Lee or the injured woman. Lee was believed to have been living in the third-floor apartment for the last year. It was not known yesterday whether his name was on the lease or why he had been on the fourth-floor fire escape.

The Brotman family's other buildings include four three-story apartment buildings on Spring Garden Street, managed by Bruce Brotman from an office in one, at 1905 Spring Garden St.

At 2121 Spring Garden, tenant Madeline Kean, sitting on the stoop, said the Brotmans had been "wonderful" landlords. Once, a mix of families lived in the building; now, most of the apartments are filled with students.

The front of the building has peeling paint, rotted wood in a windowsill, and a loose railing on the stoop, but she said Brotman had already promised to make repairs.

"Anything that has to be fixed, they fix it," said Kean, who has lived in the building 32 years. "They're very good people, honest to God."

The tenants of the 16th Street building were evacuated Sunday. Brotman said he planned to sleep in the building until it was reoccupied. On Friday, he will join the tenants for a meeting with L&I officials, Burns said.