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Inspector's wife: It was the people who haunted him

For six nights after the Center City building collapse, Michele Wagenhoffer could feel her husband tossing and turning beside her. She'd hear water running downstairs and the wood floors creaking as he paced around their Upper Roxborough home.

Ron Wagenhoffer, with son Luke and wife Michele. (Courtesy Wagenhoffer family)
Ron Wagenhoffer, with son Luke and wife Michele. (Courtesy Wagenhoffer family)Read more

For six nights after the Center City building collapse, Michele Wagenhoffer could feel her husband tossing and turning beside her. She'd hear water running downstairs and the wood floors creaking as he paced around their Upper Roxborough home.

In those early-morning hours, she would often find him lying on the couch in the darkness. She'd sit beside him and say what she'd been saying every day for the previous week: It wasn't his fault.

At that, Ronald Wagenhoffer, a city building inspector for 11 years, would look into his wife's concerned eyes and nod.

But behind her husband's silence, Michele Wagenhoffer could tell there was torment. She could see that he was consumed by feelings that he could have, should have, done something more.

Wagenhoffer, 52, was the inspector assigned to the demolition site at 22d and Market Streets when the four-story building crashed down onto the adjoining Salvation Army thrift store, killing six people and injuring 14.

"He had such a big heart and I think he was heartbroken," Michele Wagenhoffer said in an interview last week. "He did everything right, but he was very upset. He felt it was his building. It was on his watch. If nobody had died, he'd still be here. It was the people that haunted him."

One week after the building went down, Wagenhoffer was found dead in his Ford pickup at the bottom of Shawmont Avenue by his wife and brother-in-law, Charles Whitlock. He had shot himself in the chest after recording two videos for his family and friends.

In the days that followed, Wagenhoffer's dying words would be leaked to and misreported by a local television station and broadcast nationwide. News of his suicide made him the early miscast face of blame in a rush for answers.

The Mayor's Office and the Licenses and Inspections commissioner were quick to clear Wagenhoffer of any wrongdoing and praise his work for the city.

"I will state right here, right now, this man did nothing wrong," Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, Everett Gillison, told reporters. "From what I've been able to review, he did his job and he did it the way he was supposed to do it."

Last week, for the first time since Wagenhoffer's death, his wife and brother-in-law sat down to tell the story of a man so troubled by the deaths he could not quiet the what-if scenarios repeatedly playing in his head.

From the moment the building crumbled, they said, something inside him started to collapse.

The go-to guy

Wagenhoffer used to wake his family each morning with the sound of his singing classic rock in the shower. He was a carpenter by trade who worked in construction for 20 years, father of a 7-year-old boy, and married for 10 years to a computer consultant and fellow Manayunk native.

He had a job he loved, working at L&I, and was, by all accounts, a leader there. Coworkers said he was the go-to guy on larger projects and a stickler who would point out building imperfections and code violations on and off the clock.

L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams called Wagenhoffer "a professional craftsman, always striving to be better, mentoring other inspectors and earning certifications in multiple fields."

"He was the safety man," Whitlock said.

So much so that early speculation he might have been partly responsible for the collapse deeply upset Whitlock.

"There was some crazy stuff going around. People were saying was he taking bribes? That's ridiculous. I mean that's a joke," said Whitlock, who owns a construction company. "Ron knew his stuff. Never in the history of my career has he said, 'Cheat that.' He always said: 'You got to do it this way, kid. No other way.' "

When he wasn't working, Wagenhoffer coached his son's Little League team, fished, hunted with friends, and enjoyed taking trips to the Shore with his family.

"He was so proud," his wife said. "He'd wake up so happy in the morning, grab his little laptop, and off he'd go."

Stunned by events

On the morning of June 5, Michele Wagenhoffer was working in a high-rise at 20th and Market, upgrading computer software for a law firm, when a loud rumble startled her. She looked out the window and saw the remnants of the four-story building in a mountain of rubble.

Immediately, she grabbed her phone and texted her husband. "Are you OK?"

He told her he was and that the building was "his," one of more than 700 work orders assigned to him as a Central District inspector for L&I.

Six months earlier, Wagenhoffer had made a pre-demolition visit to the site, L&I records show. He said contractors assured him they planned to demolish the building "brick by brick," rather than bringing in heavy equipment that might compromise the structure, Whitlock said.

Then, after a citizen complaint weeks later, Wagenhoffer returned to the scene May 14, L&I records show, and observed the contractors using the approved manual technique.

Instead, an excavator was brought in the Sunday before the building went down - after Wagenhoffer's inspection, documents show.

Officials have since said such a machine never should have been used in the demolition and likely caused the collapse.

Wagenhoffer was stunned when he learned what happened, his relatives said.

"He said a couple times: 'I wish I could've just pinched them. I could've caught them. I could've walked in on that machine and shut it down,' " Whitlock quoted his brother-in-law as saying. " 'If I would've spun by, if I would've parked, gone over there.'

"He was like, 'You know how many times I rode by there because I'm going down the street to another job and I didn't see anything?' "

E-mail correspondence reviewed by The Inquirer shows that STB Investments Corp., owner of 2136-38 Market St., had an ongoing dispute with the Salvation Army over the type of equipment to use to ensure the safety of the thrift store during demolition.

Wagenhoffer never knew about those discussions, Whitlock said.

Wagenhoffer was back on the scene on the day of the collapse, surveying the damage and inspecting another property where the same contractors had been assigned. He spent part of the day sorting through paperwork, tracing his visits to the scene.

He and his wife went to bed that night with one person confirmed dead. When they woke up, the number had grown to six, including a 26-year-old Roxborough woman, whose wake was held down the street from the Wagenhoffers' home. He took the news of her death particularly hard, his wife said.

"From that day on, he didn't sleep," Michelle Wagenhoffer said. "He didn't want to read or watch the news. I could tell he was anxious."

Time for a lawyer

After the collapse, Wagenhoffer's days at work were spent in closed-door meetings and on conference calls with the bosses. He spent hours poring over his time sheets, looking at times he had been near the Market Street site and might have stopped over.

One day, his wife recalled, he told her he had written letters to the victims' families, telling them how sorry he was for their losses and that he had done his best. The letters, never sent, are on his work laptop, now in police custody.

"I was like: 'Ron, honey, that's really nice, but you're a building inspector. You're not the guy who is doing the work there. You're not the guy who built the building, and you're not the guy who's pulling down the building,' " Michele Wagenhoffer said.

He warned her that the process of sorting out blame for the collapse would likely drag on, that there would be lawsuits that could take years to resolve. He said the events of June 5 would "be part of [their] lives forever."

Speaking in a near whisper as her son, Luke, ran by laughing and playing with his cousin, Michele Wagenhoffer said there were signs something was changing in her husband the week before his suicide.

He forgot simple things like buying beer for a Sunday cookout. He grew quiet and withdrawn, and spent less time playing with his son.

Things got worse, she said, when two days before Wagenhoffer's death, an L&I official suggested he might want to hire a lawyer.

"That really scared him," his wife said. "He started thinking of worst-case scenarios like losing his job, and if he had, I think that would have killed him."

"I think that devastated him mentally," Whitlock said. "For everyone who'd looked to him, he was no longer the model L&I guy. He was the guy in the hot seat. You go from doing everything right your entire life to being told you better get an attorney."

On the morning of June 12, one week to the day of the collapse, Wagenhoffer kissed his wife goodbye, told her he loved her, and went to work.

Later in the day, he texted her out of the blue, "hello, I luv you."

At 4:10 p.m., the family's home security camera shows, he pulled into his driveway, ran into the house to get something, and sped off minutes later.

When Wagenhoffer didn't show up at Luke's 5:30 p.m. Little League game, Whitlock, whose son also plays on the team, started to worry. Wagenhoffer was the assistant coach. He had never missed a game before.

After the game ended about 7 p.m., Whitlock started making calls to friends, family, hospitals - even the bar Wagenhoffer went to no more than twice a year.

Then he got a call from a friend who had received a cryptic text from Wagenhoffer: "I'm at the bottom of Shawmont. Check the camera."

He showed his sister the text and the two drove down Shawmont to the Schuylkill riverbank, where Wagenhoffer used to fish with friends.

His truck was there, still running.

Whitlock climbed into the passenger seat, saw the single gunshot wound, and told his sister to stay back. At first, he thought someone had killed his brother-in-law. He remembers looking into the bushes for fear someone might still be lurking.

Then it hit him.

"It was just so out of character. I shook him and I screamed: 'You didn't do this. You didn't!' " Whitlock said.

On Wagenhoffer's work-issued digital camera, fixed to the dashboard in front of him, were two videos he recorded in the moments before his death. The Inquirer reviewed both videos.

"I'm devastated by the deaths and injuries at 22d and Market. It wasn't my fault," he said in the first recording. "I should have been more diligent and looked at those guys working, but I didn't. When I saw, it was too late. I should have just parked and walked over there, but I didn't. I'm sorry."

(The reference to parking his car, Whitlock said, likely had to do with times Wagenhoffer had driven by the property on his way to other jobs.)

A minute after the first, Wagenhoffer recorded a second video for his family, which his wife said she watches every day.

"I just wish I could reach in there and grab him," she said, smiling at his frozen image on her computer screen.

In the video, Wagenhoffer, dressed in his L&I polo shirt and appearing calm, says: "Tell Luke I went to sleep with God because I couldn't sleep here." He ends it by saying, "I love everyone."

'How did I miss this?'

The weight of what happened at "his building" never lifted for Wagenhoffer.

Michele Wagenhoffer uses the same words to describe her husband's suicide as he did to talk about the collapse.

"I just keep asking myself, How did I miss this? How did I not see it?" she said. " 'I live with you. I love you. I knew how upset you were, but how did I not see that it was that bad?' "

She takes Luke to church every Sunday and then to his father's grave. They both have moments every day when they break down.

Michele Wagenhoffer said she finds solace in knowing that the same man whose heavy heart likely ended his life spent 52 years appreciating it.

"I know he enjoyed every moment of it," she said. "I know he enjoyed every moment with Luke, playing baseball. I know he enjoyed every moment with his friends up in the mountains."

She recalled spending her first date with Wagenhoffer 16 years ago at a nearby park with his guitar, a telescope, and a six-pack.

"He was such a simple man. Life, breathing fresh air, always satisfied him. And I think he probably, after all those years, did feel that satisfaction. And I bet you, maybe - I don't know, but maybe - he is at peace."


Find more coverage of the Center City building collapse, including a video of the disaster as seen from a SEPTA bus, at