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7 years after tragedy, a retrial

Moms of Pier 34 victims remember

Seven years ago, just days after Mother's Day, the mothers of DeAnn White, Monica Rodriguez and Jean Marie Ferraro heard words no parent ever wants to hear:

Their daughters had gone out on a beautiful night, something horrible happened and they wouldn't be coming back.

On May 18, 2000, a section of Pier 34 in South Philadelphia that housed the Heat nightclub collapsed into the Delaware River, sending dozens of people tumbling into the murky waters. White, 25, of Germantown, and Rodriguez, 21, and Ferraro, 27, both of Cherry Hill, drowned after being trapped underwater by debris.

In November, a Common Pleas Court jury announced itself hopelessly deadlocked after hearing five weeks of testimony from 70 witnesses and after deliberating for six days in the trial of Pier 34 owner Michael Asbell, 64, of Merion, and pier operator Eli Karetny, 66, of Cherry Hill, on three counts of involuntary manslaughter and other charges.

Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper declared a mistrial. Prosecutors immediately vowed to try the case again.

Today, jury selection begins in the two defendants' retrial. Opening statements are scheduled for next Monday.

In addition to the involuntary manslaughter charges, the two men face 43 counts of recklessly endangering another person - all misdemeanor charges. The defendants also face felony charges of risking a catastrophe and criminal conspiracy.

If convicted of all charges, they would each face a maximum of 115 years in prison, but the judge would likely consider their backgrounds for a less severe penalty.

It has been a painful seven years for the victims' families - as well as for the defendants and their families.

"It's tough," Gail Ramsey, one of DeAnn White's four sisters, said by phone last week. "But no matter how long it takes or how tough it is, we are there."

She also wrote by e-mail: "Being caught between tragedy and justice is difficult. Yet, it is no excuse for not being present in the [courtroom] for our loved ones who cannot be there, visible, to those who caused them harm. We are their faces, their voices, no matter how much it hurts.

"If it were your sister, your daughter, what would you do?"

On Mother's Day in 2000, four days before the pier collapse, White organized something special for her mother, Blanche White-Toole. White gathered her sisters in her apartment so they could each be videotaped giving a special message to their mother.

"DeAnn's message in part went something like, 'Hi, Mom. I am so proud of you. . . . You went back to college to get your degree.' . . . The girls sat me down to hear their messages on Mother's Day and four days later, DeAnn was gone," her mother wrote in a program booklet commemorating the fifth anniversary of the tragedy.

White, the youngest of five daughters and a Temple University journalism graduate, was always "making someone happy," her mother wrote. The family has kept White's spirit alive through the DeAnn White Scholarship Fund (

Eileen Ferraro, Jean Marie's mom, wrote in the program booklet that "my first-born beautiful brown-eyed girl" was someone who "loved life, lived it to its fullest" and "was also a very giving person." Ferraro "loved dance lessons," played softball and was a "die-hard" sports fan.

Monica's mother, Mary Lou Rodriguez, wrote in the program booklet that Monica was "always a very happy person and her favorite saying was 'I Love Life.' She would twirl," spinning with her arms out, shouting.

White, Ferraro and Rodriguez worked at the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden. They went to the nightclub the evening of May 18, 2000, to celebrate various milestones: White's upcoming birthday, Ferraro's recent promotion to marketing manager, and Rodriguez's first day as a full-timer on the job.

The club consisted of an open-air wooden deck at the end of the pier, a tent covering and three bars. It had opened just the week before.

Around 8 that night, about 138 feet of the 557-foot-long pier fell into the river, taking the club with it and part of the adjacent Ballroom banquet hall.

Rescuers scrambled to save club patrons and workers. The three women drowned. Forty-three other people were injured.

In last year's trial, the thrust of the prosecution by assistant district attorneys John Doyle and Jude Conroy was that Asbell and Karetny had received years of notice from the men who inspected and repaired the pier that it was deteriorating - evidenced by widening cracks in the concrete seawall and on the pier's surface, and by wooden pilings under the pier that no longer stood straight.

Key prosecution witness Jesse Tyson, a marine-construction expert, testified that he warned Asbell and Karetny in the early afternoon of May 18 that the pier could collapse between 8 and 9 that night or the next morning at low tide.

The defense - attorney Frank DeSimone representing Karetny, and Thomas Bergstrom representing Asbell - argued that no warnings had been given of the pier's imminent collapse and that their clients had access to whatever money was needed to shore up the pier, but were not told of its precarious state by the men who inspected it.

Campbell Soup Co. heiress Dorrance H. "Dodo" Hamilton, the sole shareholder of HMS Ventures Inc., which owned Heat and the Moshulu restaurant ship that had been docked off the pier, was also called to testify by the prosecution and defense. Friendly with Karetny, whom she hired as HMS president to run operations at the ship and club, she testified that she trusted Karetny to make everyday decisions on the pier.

The Moshulu, now docked at Penn's Landing, is no longer owned or operated by HMS Ventures. Pier 34 has been sold by Asbell to his developer friend Louis A. Cicalese.

And nowadays, the parking lot of Pier 34, off Columbus Boulevard, houses Cicalese's Marina View Towers sales office.

The back part of the pier is closed off with a fence. On it are posted signs saying "Danger" and "No Trespassing." *