The collapse of the Ali family's Camden home was more than a decade in the making, according to Haneef Ali. When a building next door was demolished in 2000, one wall of the rowhouse was weakened and was never reinforced. Over time, the brick facade began separating from the front of the building, until, last week, city officials notified the Alis that the home was unsafe to live in.
Ali, who shared the Line Street home with his wife, their adult daughter, and her 2-year-old daughter, said he could not afford to make the repairs. He was still worrying about what to do around 11 Sunday night when he heard noises at the front windows, and then watched as the wall buckled and fell to the street.
"I looked and saw the wall was sliding down," he said. "The next thing I know, I'm looking out onto the street."
As the three-story house rumbled around them, floors cracking and shifting, members of the family ran for their lives, all escaping unharmed.
By Monday morning, as the family and city officials surveyed the destruction, Ali and Camden officials offered differing opinions as to who should have been responsible for preventing Sunday's collapse.
Ali, who works for the state as a computer programmer, said he had been asking the city to stabilize the building since 2000. He said the company that did the demolition, W. Hargrove Demolition, never reinforced his house's exterior wall with stucco, as is required in many such demolitions. Ali said he asked the company to do the work but never got an answer.
Ali acknowledged that he did not know whether Hargrove, which has been operating in Camden for decades, was contractually obligated to shore up the wall. A representative from Hargrove could not be reached for comment.
When he went to the city's department of code enforcement, Ali said, workers brushed off his complaints. "They said it wasn't the city's problem," he said.
Robert Corrales, Camden's business administrator, said Monday that there was a history of safety concerns regarding Ali's home but that he would not elaborate until the city had reviewed its records on the property.
"We're not going to cast blame on somebody before we get our facts straight," Corrales said.
City spokesman Vincent Basara said there was a history of code violations at the property dating back about 15 years, mostly stemming from structural issues with the wall.
Corrales said homeowners are responsible for keeping their properties up to code, and said the city had made efforts to help the Alis get in touch with agencies that could help them.
"If there's someone living in a house and they feel unsafe, they need to call someone," he said. "If you don't feel safe in your home, you need to call our buildings department, and we'll do what we can to assist you."
The Alis had lived in the home since 1989, raising most of their eight children there, Ali said. Several fires in the building next door damaged it beyond repair, leading to the demolition. After that, Ali said, the wall started deteriorating, and the facade started bowing outward.
"We didn't know what to do," he said. "We started asking for help from everyone."
Ali said he received the "unsafe structure" notice from the city Thursday, ordering the family out by the end of the month. Basara said the notice was prompted by public safety workers who saw the front of the building crumbling last week, and said city construction official James Rizzo visited the house two days in a row in an attempt to contact the family.
Once someone receives a notice like the Alis did, he said, they can make a plan with the city to address the problems, as well as appeal the notice or file for an extension.
On Monday an insurance adjuster surveyed the property, as Ali's wife, Alyce, was allowed to go in and out of the building to retrieve items like clothes, computers, and documents. The 400 block of Line Street was blocked off and the building boarded up temporarily. If the adjuster determines the home a total loss, it may soon be demolished.
The American Red Cross is assisting the family and has put the Alis up in a Gloucester City hotel. Two of the couple's grandchildren also live at the house part of the time, and the Camden School District, Salvation Army Kroc Center, and other local organizations are providing food, clothes, transportation, and other necessities.
The Alis' 27-year-old daughter, Zorana, was on the third floor Sunday night with her daughter, Ariana, when the floor shifted, and the power went out. She grabbed her daughter and they ran for the stairs.
"I heard the sound of the wall falling," she said. "I didn't know what was happening."
As they fled, the floor of their room shattered, Ariana Ali said.
"The floor cracked, it was dark," she said. "I was crying a little bit."