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Row House Disaster Shows Cracks In Philly's Excavation Industry: Company May Have Acted Without Permits

As the high-risk dig industry comes under scrutiny in the wake of an excavation that caused a Philadelphia home to crumble Wednesday, a permit search indicates the contractor on the job did not have the required permission to be digging out the site in the first place.

And this isn’t the first time the contractor in question has been in hot water, city and federal records show.

A home at 729 N. 16th St. in Philadelphia had already begun to collapse Thursday evening after an emergency demolition the day before. By Friday, much of the home belonging to the Tyrone Mack family was reduced to rubble.

Dornelas Construction Inc. is listed as the excavation contractor on a half-million dollar apartment project site in the Francisville neighborhood at 725-727 N. 16th St., applications to the city of Philadelphia show.

That excavation caused a more-than-century-old row house next door at 729 N. 16th St. to begin giving way, forcing the immediate emergency demolition of the 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.

Dornelas was apparently digging a basement for the estimated $450K multifamily project underway at a lot next door to Mack’s home and led by Philadelphia-based developer The Regis Group.

But according to city records, although a basement is part of a plan approved for another portion of the project at 723 N. 16th St., the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections recently canceled scheduled inspections of the planned dig site adjacent to Mack's home and excavation permits appear not to have been issued.

A representative answering the phone at the Dornelas office said the company owner was unable to answer questions Friday as she had left for the weekend.

Dornelas 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.

Neither the Regis Group nor the city of Philadelphia responded to requests for comment Friday. R&D Construction, listed as the construction company on the project and approved for another infill demolition project at another site as of Wednesday, also did not respond to requests for comment.

An Inquirer investigation this past summer found that more than 50 Philadelphia homes a year had been deemed unsafe or dangerous due to construction on adjoining property since 2020. It also found that the city had failed to discipline contractors, engineers and architects that caused repeated damage. 

The demolition company that took down the Mack's row home has seen this before, owner Walter Mangual told Bisnow Wednesday, adding that collateral destruction is becoming commonplace in the case of basement digs.

“These excavators, they’re digging too deep, digging way too deep,” he said.

“It’s sad.”

As of Friday, possessions and mementos belonging to Tyrone Mack and four other family members were buried in rubble after the home crashed to the ground Thursday, the day after emergency demolition began.