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Are explosion and fire likely in Philadelphia?

Thousands of aging Philadelphia buildings with shops on the ground level and apartments above may be susceptible to explosions and fires. An explosion followed by a devastating fire that started at the rear of a first-floor hair salon in a five-story building in New York City's Chinatown injured twelve people, four firefighters and eight residents from apartments on the four upper floors. Four of the eight injured residents went to local hospitals as emergency cases, two in critical and two in serious condition.

Initial reports suggested a natural gas leak as the cause. Fire investigators later discovered at the rear of a first-floor hair salon numerous, perhaps as many as four dozen, pesticide fumigating canisters that release flammable gas to kill roaches and other bugs. A building resident told investigators she put out 24 of the bug bombs and another 24 when she failed to get the result she wanted from the first lot.

The explosion blew out a load-bearing wall and caused a partial collapse of the first floor, which may have been under constructive repair. The city government had cited the building owner for fire code violations that remain outstanding. There is also evidence of illegal subdivision of some apartments and consequent overcrowding. The city cited the owners for failure to maintain the building in 2009, when inspectors ordered it evacuated as unsafe, allowing residents to return two months later. That same year they found floors rotted and in danger of collapse and no mandatory fire-stopping material in the basement.

The building resident who misused the bug bombs may bear some of the blame for the explosion. The building's substandard condition and infamous history of deferred maintenance seem to make a clear case of premises liability for damages likely to be in millions of dollars.

Source: USA Today, "12 hurt in NYC building explosion, fire", Natalie DiBlasio and Michael Winter, July 11, 2013

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