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A contractor without proper permits destroyed a family’s home of 61 years. The DA is investigating.

“My feeling is, how could you have known this? How could you know this was a possibility and not tell anybody?”

The empty lots at 633 and 635 E. Thompson St. in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood at the end of February. Two adjoining rowhouses formerly on the property collapsed after a contractor performed work in one of the homes without a permit.
The empty lots at 633 and 635 E. Thompson St. in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood at the end of February. Two adjoining rowhouses formerly on the property collapsed after a contractor performed work in one of the homes without a permit.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Over the course of nearly 40 years, two grandparents, 10 children, 17 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren gathered on Sundays in a Fishtown rowhouse for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and dinners. With a family that large, the Klenks often joke that it always feels as if they are celebrating something.

So on Super Bowl Sunday, as they had hundreds of times before, nearly 25 members of the Klenk family piled into the narrow, brick home at 635 E. Thompson St. They brought plates heaping with Primo Hoagies and bowls of chicken wings. They dressed in Eagles gear — Gritty attire, too. Their beloved Birds weren’t playing that night, but that didn’t seem to matter.

Sundays were a day of family for the Klenks, so they gathered around the TV.

No one could have imagined it would be for the last time.

By the next Sunday, the Klenks’ three stories of bricks and memories had collapsed into rubble — the latest victim of Philadelphia’s fast-paced development boom. Earlier in the week, a contracting company working without proper permits on the rowhouse next door destroyed the properties’ shared foundation wall while excavating the basement. The three Klenks who were home, plus a home health aide, discovered the problem only when the house shook, the ceiling caved in, and the stairs separated from the wall.

They rushed to escape, kicking down the front door, which had suddenly jammed when the building shifted, and rolled 94-year-old Clovena Klenk, the matriarch, in her wheelchair to safety outside. When emergency officials arrived soon after, the family was told that their house was at risk of collapsing, and that it needed to come down.

So on Sunday, Feb. 10 — exactly one week after the Klenks’ Super Bowl party — a crew hired by Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections began demolishing their house, plus 633 E. Thompson St., where the contractors had been working next door. A backhoe carefully clawed at the homes. Water sprayed to keep down dust. And within minutes, both homes crumpled helplessly, sending six decades of family history smashing to the ground.

“I couldn’t believe how fast it happened. … I don’t think anyone was expecting for it to fall like that,” said Karen Klenk, one of Clovena’s 10 children. The contractors "left my family sitting in there, knowing that the house could collapse at any minute.”

“My feeling is, how could you have known this?” she continued. “How could you know this was a possibility and not tell anybody?”

Construction ‘is going crazy’

Philadelphia has long been celebrated as a city of rowhouses. They line block after block, weaving through neighborhoods, creating density, connectivity, and opportunities for affordable housing.

They also have become a frequent casualty amid Philadelphia’s development boom.

Compared with the kinds of unattached houses found beyond the city, rowhouses are not, in and of themselves, more vulnerable to collapse. When alterations or demolitions are done “thoughtfully,” said Tom Normile, a principal at Keast & Hood, a Philadelphia structural engineering firm, neighboring homes see no problems.

“Anyone with some common sense and experience will recognize that if you are doing something with a structure, you have to be cognizant of what is next door,” Normile said. “... That’s the vulnerability, just in that they are connected.”

Yet too often, property damage attorney Marc Weinberg said, accidents are happening.

It is difficult to document how frequently Philadelphia rowhouses fall — either from construction or on their own — or how often adjacent homes are damaged when they collapse. L&I keeps no specific database on either. Still, across the city, high-profile examples of accidents at neighboring properties abound.

In December, part of a three-story Francisville building collapsed on two contractors who were digging underground next door while preparing a foundation for a proposed four-story building. They were briefly trapped under bricks and later treated at a hospital.

And in 2014, the residents of two South Philadelphia rowhouses on the 1800 block of Carpenter Street had to evacuate after it was discovered that their houses were beginning to crumble. Between the rowhouses sat an empty lot where contractors had been working on a foundation.

As for what happened to the Klenks? Not atypical. Even in 2005, records show, at least seven adjacent properties were damaged or destroyed from excavation work, including one on the 1900 block of Spring Garden Street, which collapsed after a construction crew disturbed the foundation while working next door.

“The construction in the city is going crazy,” said Weinberg, a partner at the law firm Saffren & Weinberg. “People are realizing that there is an opportunity to go and make money in real estate. … And when that happens, you get some [who are] good, some bad, and somewhere in between.”

A DA investigation

In the moments before their house toppled, nearly two dozen members of the Klenk family stood across the street, watching demolition by the L&I crew begin.

Suddenly, there was clatter. Loud screams. Clouds of dust billowed.

“I just remember my sister-in-law Cindy yelling, ‘Adam! Adam! Are you OK?’ and I remember praying,” Karen Klenk said of her nephew. “It was just a moment of chaos — the bricks are flying, the building is falling, and the dust is airing.”

“The construction workers were calling out each other’s names to make sure it was safe. We were calling out each other’s names,” Karen Klenk said. “We couldn’t see through the debris.”

L&I recently moved to revoke the license of the contractor of record, Q Construction Group, after determining that the company did not have proper permits or engineer supervision when the foundation wall was destroyed. The company, which was insured, had obtained a general alteration permit in November, but it did not allow for lowering basement walls, L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said. She added that L&I considers lowering basements to be “one of the most dangerous things that can be done to a rowhouse.”

The city has referred the matter to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, which is investigating, said a spokesperson for the DA. The case marks the first time that an L&I case has been sent to the DA since Mayor Jim Kenney took office.

A lawyer for Brian Gerber, listed as president of Q Construction in the summer of 2018, did not respond to requests for comment. A phone number associated with the company was disconnected. In addition, efforts to reach the owners of 633 E. Thompson St. were unsuccessful. The property is owned by E. Thompson Development LLC, which was incorporated by Walter Marino.

Both may still remain active in the city, records show. Gerber has ties to another contracting company licensed in Philadelphia, and Marino, meanwhile, over the last year, has expanded his real estate holdings. Another real estate company that he is connected to, E. Montgomery Development LLC, purchased a pair of properties around the corner on East Montgomery Avenue, with plans to build five new housing units on one of the sites.

The Klenks said they have not heard from anyone involved at the house next door.

“The abject failure in this case to follow safe building practices and precautions endangered lives and destroyed property,” said Guss, the L&I spokesperson, adding that “insufficient precautions around digging” seem to be happening more frequently.

“Commissioner [David] Perri attributes this to the frenzied pace of construction, inexperienced contractors, changing soil conditions, and residents of small rowhouses wanting more living space,” Guss said.

Another problem, L&I said, is contractors working without permits.

Since the start of 2017, L&I has recorded 11,088 violations against contractors for working without or exceeding permits on 6,108 properties citywide. Non-permitted work, the department said, is generally identified by 95 building inspectors, who travel around construction sites and follow up on complaints. A separate L&I unit recently has been deployed to deal with chronically problematic contractors, Guss said. In the last seven months, that group has initiated 139 enforcement actions at 213 sites.

‘She might not make it’

Even with extra enforcement, observers say, the root of Philadelphia’s construction problem persists: It’s simply cheaper and faster to break the rules.

For Clovena Klenk, who purchased 635 E. Thompson St. in 1958 with her now-late husband, that mentality has carried a big loss.

There will be no ladies nights on Thompson Street in the near future, and upcoming birthday parties have been relocated. Two of Clovena’s children who live with her are still trying to make their hotel suite a home. From the rubble, they saved family World War II memorabilia, old photos, and diaries. Many of the things they searched for ended up missing or ruined.

As for Clovena, who battles dementia, the days can be confusing. She sometimes asks to return home. For now, her son Jim tells her, she’s on vacation.

The Klenks plan to rebuild at 635 E. Thompson St., said Clovena’s son, Shawn Klenk. But they know time is not on their side.

“Rebuilding might take a year to a year and half,” Shawn said. “My mother is 94. … She might not make it to the other side.”