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City Hones In On Multi-Alias Contractor Linked To Row Home Disaster

The contractor responsible for an excavation that toppled a residential home in Francisville and already cited for more than a dozen similar city infractions is under investigation, a spokesperson for the city of Philadelphia told Bisnow

Siblings Joyce Booth and Tyrone Mack stand by their erstwhile home as it gets torn down.

Dornelas Construction Inc., which dug out what appears to have been an illegal basement for a multifamily project last week, is under scrutiny from the city and neighbors after a next-door home gave way and was subsequently leveled.

Bricks first began to tumble from a row home located at 729 N. 16th St. Tuesday and by Wednesday last week, city officials were on the scene, calling for full demolition of the family home next to the dig site. The Dornelas crew left the scene soon after officials from the Department of Licenses and Inspections declared an emergency knockdown of the home.

The multifamily project is led by Philly developer The Regis Development Corp. 

A subsequent Bisnow investigation showed that Dornelas did not have the required permits for the excavation and has a long history of flouting local and state regulations. The city had not yet completed a check for structural stability of existing buildings at the site before digging began, according to the city's permit website.

“Dornelas Construction has been issued multiple violations and multiple investigations have been made by the Audits and Investigations Unit. There is a current investigation into the behavior of Dornelas Construction,” Shemeka Moore, communications director at Licenses and Inspections, told Bisnow. “Unfortunately, we can’t share specific details.”

The digging by Dornelas destabilized a home belonging to Tyrone Mack, a colon cancer patient who arrived home from treatment to find the structure that had been in his family for three generations being knocked down.

The back half of 729 N. 16th St. shows the foundation destruction wrought by the construction next door.

Dornelas has not responded to multiple requests for comment after the incident last Wednesday when the city’s licenses and inspections department was notified about a crumbling house on 16th Street and Brown Street via a 911 call patch-through from fire services. Dornelas was the excavator on the job.

The city declared a same-day demolition when a portion of the home's rear foundation and first-floor wall collapsed into the adjacent excavation and the front wall had a partial collapse, Moore stated.

Dornelas, which was called to the job, has also operated under the name Freedom Construction, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and has been cited more than a dozen times by the city “for repeated violations related to excavation, shoring, and underpinning that risked public safety,” according to the city's L&I site.

The company has also been fined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at least once, in 2022, for a serious violation of worker safety and has been involved in seven accidents causing three injuries using company vehicles over two years, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The FMCSA gave Dornelas a conditional safety rating, indicating it has not implemented adequate controls to ensure compliance with safety fitness standards.

Moore noted that the department investigates every call and encouraged 311 calls on these matters from the public.

However, a neighbor said that on the day the collapse began, she was left in the dark, even after bricks and debris from the structure began falling through the night, raising alarm.

Nearby neighbor Didem Doganay-Gradecknear said she was concerned early on about falling debris and her safety, yet heard nothing from city officials. Later, the collapsing home caused a power and gas cut, again without any notice from emergency responders or officials from the city about what to do, she said.

Doganay-Gradeck was forced to stay out of her home over several nights, she said, adding the trouble in her neighborhood followed "a pattern of carelessness,” even before excavation. 

“We were faced with dust and debris from the demolition for weeks," she said. “The contractors on-site were careless. We noticed multiple times they had damaged Tyrone Mack's property, including his fence and other furniture in his outdoor space.”

“We believe that we should have been provided housing and other support for the nights we were unable to stay in our apartment.”