Family members of a man who died after a fall in an empty building at 701 W. Philadelphia St. appeared before York City Council to complain about the building before it burned Thursday morning in a three-alarm blaze.
Police said they were called to the structure at 12:39 a.m. for a report of a burglary in progress. Upon arrival, police found that someone had broken into the building and the building was on fire. At that time, the fire department was dispatched to the scene.
Officials ruled the cause of the blaze as arson, and York City Police arrested Keith Hetrick, 27, in connection with the fire, according to a news release.
But the building was already a concern for neighborhood residents before the fire occurred.
In November, Abby Nguyen, who owns a business across the street, said her father-in-law, Hilo Haihuu Nguyen, entered the structure and fell through the first floor to the basement. He later died of his injuries. He was 67.
Nguyen and her sister-in-law, Harriet Gray, pleaded with City Council members at a meeting Tuesday night to find a way to demolish the building.
“We lost somebody we can’t get back. We deserve to know why that building’s still there,” Nguyen said. “We’re just looking for somebody to do something. We’re just calling for someone to care.”
The building was marked as condemned after the death occurred, and previously had borne a red “x” that is an indication to fire and safety personnel that they should enter the building only if there is a public safety risk.
Steven Buffington, deputy director of Permits, Planning and Zoning said at the meeting that city officials had gone through the building after the fall and determined that it was not going to collapse. Code officers informed the property owner that he could not be in the building unless it was for the purpose of rebuilding it.
“There’s not a whole lot that the city can and needs to do at that time,” Buffington said. “We’ve met our obligation in that the public can not gain access to the building.”
Before Thursday’s fire, the building had been empty for at least two years, Nguyen said.
Windows were boarded up and the entrances were locked, although a small part of one doorway had rotted. An official notice on the door said that there were “many walls, floors and ceilings removed” in the building when it was inspected after the death of Hilo Nguyen.
Gray and Nguyen were among others who spoke out about concerns over abandoned and vacant buildings in the city. They left the meeting abruptly after they were told there was little that could be done.
Officials have said that the cost of securing empty buildings is putting a strain on city departments. York is footing the bill for dealing with buildings that have been given up by the property owners.
Buffington said in an email that the cost of demolishing a building is about $40,000 and that the city already has run through its demolition budget for this year. It costs about $750 to board up a building, he said.
A language change to the property maintenance code will help the city seek injunctions that would force landowners to close the properties themselves, he said.
When the city is forced to do the work, its only option to recoup the money spent is to file a lien against the property, and Buffington said that York has never taken an property in those cases.
“Our liens are usually way down on the list of creditors that get paid and there is usually no money left to pay us,” he said.