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Seeing the big picture of the Market Street collapse

There’s no end of investigations into the Market Street collapse. What we’re missing is a probe of L&I, with no strings attached.

An overhead shot of the scene of the building collapse at 22nd and Market Street. An apartment building that was being torn down collapsed onto a one-story Salvation Army thrift store. Here, fire and police go through the rubble looking for survivors. ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
An overhead shot of the scene of the building collapse at 22nd and Market Street. An apartment building that was being torn down collapsed onto a one-story Salvation Army thrift store. Here, fire and police go through the rubble looking for survivors. ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )Read more

ON MAY 13, 1985, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on a West Philly rowhouse. Eleven people died and 61 homes went up in flames.

Within a week, then-Mayor Wilson Goode agreed to appoint an independent commission to investigate exactly how and why the Police Department's final confrontation with the MOVE fringe group escalated to catastrophe.

It has been four months and 19 days since the collapse of 2140 Market St. killed six people and injured 13. So far, all we have is the promise that Mayor Nutter will appoint a similar independent commission to examine how the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections might have averted the tragedy.

The appointment will happen "very soon," Nutter's spokesman Mark McDonald told me Monday.

He said the same thing 37 days ago.

For Nancy Winkler and Jay Bryan, soon is getting a little late. Their daughter, Anne Bryan, 24, was among those killed when a wall being knocked down for slumlord developer Richard Basciano toppled onto the adjacent Salvation Army thrift store.

"We're afraid that the more time that passes, the more the collapse will recede into the city's memory as just a terrible accident," says Winkler, who is the city's treasurer. "But it was a horrific, avoidable crime that was the result of a widespread, systemic failure to put public safety first."

I met with the couple in their Center City home. Built last year, it was inspected three times by L&I while under construction. The inspector, according to their builder, was Ronald Wagenhoffer - the same man who inspected the Market Street demo site where Anne died and who took his own life a week after the collapse.

"It's an awful irony," says Bryan, who is a structural engineer.

Awful, too, is that their daughter used to avoid department stores because she became claustrophobic in large spaces where she couldn't see a window.

"She would shop only in one-floor stores because she wanted to be able to get out quickly," Winkler says of Anne, who died of crush injuries and asphyxiation. "She died of the thing she was afraid of."

The couple have taken great pains to keep their mourning private, lest their call for an independent panel be dismissed as the entitled ravings of a high-profile family demanding justice for their daughter.

That would be a wrong impression, since they don't need the panel for justice. They have the courts for that. They have brought lawsuits against Basciano, the Salvation Army and other defendants whose alleged failings are outlined in chilling detail in their complaint, filed by attorney Robert Mongeluzzi. And a grand jury is exploring possible criminal charges.

So Winkler and Bryan have nothing to gain, personally, by asking for an independent blue-ribbon commission to look at the collapse in a larger context.

What they do have, thanks to their respective roles in government and engineering, are feelings of civic responsibility. They want the city to use this moment to undergo an honest examination of the systems, people and processes that affect building, demo and development in Philly.

Because any one of us could have been killed in the Salvation Army collapse, whose victims represent a wide cross-section of race, class, age and culture. And because there are still fly-by-night contractors, demo operators and neglectful property owners putting people at risk in neighborhoods far from the glitzy developments of Center City.

"Those people matter, too," says Winkler.

Some will say that we have investigations galore, that one more isn't needed.

After all, in the week after the collapse, L&I inspected 442 sites for which demolition permits had been issued, dating back to 2007 (five stop-work orders resulted). And the mayor issued an executive order establishing important new L&I regulations and policies on building demolition.

City Council held hearings. The grand jury was convened. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration kicked off an investigation. The city's inspector general did a look-see. And City Controller Alan Butkovitz initiated his own inquest to find out how things went so wrong on June 5.

It's all good, says Drexel University professor Scott Knowles, author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America. But a blue-ribbon commission of pro-bono local and national experts - with no political, personal or business ties to the city or axes to grind - would connect the dots among city departments, public agencies, local courts and private developers. And that could lead to lifesaving changes, here and elsewhere.

Says Knowles: "Otherwise, you're left with copious facts about a disaster but no impartial narrative that pulls them together in a way that can make a difference in public safety. There's an opportunity and responsibility, every time there's a disaster, to learn from it."

He points to the independent task force that explored why the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on 9/11. The obvious answer, he says, was that they'd been hit by jet planes.

But by looking at the precise conditions that caused the buildings to collapse, he says, "The commission came up with 30 recommendations" - regarding building evacuation and the like - "many of which have worked their way into high-rise structures here and around the world."

Surely the Market Street disaster would yield similar insights to a panel of experts beholden to no one but the public.

"We're pushing for the independent commission because we know Anne herself would expect it of us," says Bryan. "She was a very ethical person; she held herself to very high standards."

Since the collapse, he says, the family has been carried by the love and support of friends, classmates and professors at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Anne - whose light could "fill the room"- managed to create a beautiful body of work in her single year of study there.

This summer, Winkler was able to spend time in a PAFA studio with one of Anne's fellow classmates and make prints from lithographs created by Anne. They were then signed in Anne's name by her brother, since tradition allows a family member to sign the work of an artist who has died.

In that tiny way, Anne lives on. Though it is not enough and never will be.

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly