Death from above: 12 months, six victims, countless stories
It has been a year since six people died in the collapse of the Salvation Army thrift store. Justice remains elusive.
BY NOW, we all know what happened at 22nd and Market streets on June 5, 2013.
The wall of a building being demolished toppled onto the roof of the adjacent Salvation Army thrift store. The shop collapsed, killing six people and injuring 13 more. All represented a vibrant cross-section of the city.
One year later, we have yet to mete out justice to those responsible for those deaths, but, oh, do we have worthy candidates:
Politically connected real-estate developer Richard Basciano, whose derelict properties had already killed one man and injured another before the Salvation Army thrift store catastrophe.
His architect, Plato Marinakos, who got the permits for the project and has been granted immunity to testify about it.
Demolition contractor Griffin Campbell and excavator operator Sean Benschop, who have each been charged with six counts of third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
As for Department of Licenses & Inspections building inspector Ronald Wagenhoffer, who inspected the project, he imposed a death sentence on himself. Wracked with grief over the deaths, he took his own life seven days after the bodies were pulled from the rubble.
A grand jury, convened last June, is still investigating. Multiple lawsuits have been filed. In the wrongful-death case of Juanita Harmon, the depositions alone, to begin this summer, will take four months.
"We have reviewed literally tens of thousands of documents and are moving our way through the system," says lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi, who represents Harmon's family. "Each deposition might have 25 to 30 lawyers present asking questions. We are leaving no stone unturned in determining what occurred."
Neither is the blue-ribbon commission that convened in November to examine the workings of L&I. Its report will be released in September.
In it, the commission will recommend changes that L&I must make if we're to avoid another disaster like the one that tore so many families apart on a beautiful morning one year ago.
L&I hasn't needed a report, though, to do its own gut check.
"This tragedy was devastating to all of us," L&I commissioner Carlton Williams says. "It ranks as one of the worst in Philadelphia's history, but it also made us take a serious look at our policies and procedures. We've made changes with the hope of making the city safer for us all."
* Demolition permits, previously issued over the counter and often on the same day a contractor applied for one, now require a background check that takes at least 20 days to complete. A contractor's experience, site-safety plans and work schedules are reviewed, as are a contractor's demolition plans.
* Inspectors must now complete thorough, on-site reviews of site-safety plans and return for additional inspections as each stage of a demolition unfolds.
* The agency now checks a contractor's tax history and insurance status at the time of permit application. A permit will not be issued if back taxes are owed the city or insurance isn't current.
* L&I has created a department that focuses exclusively on dangerous properties and construction sites where illegal or unlicensed work is being conducted.
* The unit that provides oversight of building and development issues has been restructured.
Sounds good. But are these changes making a difference?
"That's something we're looking at," says Glenn Corbett, chairman of the blue-ribbon commission and associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He won't talk about what the panel has uncovered so far but describes it as a broad, deep, detailed and methodical dissection of every aspect of L&I operations.
"We're looking at what happens before the first shovel of dirt is lifted all the way to what happens when the final inspection is finished. We're looking at the mission, permit process, coding, policies, procedures, manpower and budgets. We're looking at how 3-1-1 interacts with L&I, where and how politics play out and how relationships with developers are managed."
The commission's goal, he says, is to avoid obvious recommendations to the mayor - like "hire more staff" - and focus instead on specific "qualitative and numerical" ones.
"We want to be able to say, for example, 'L&I should bring in X number of employees in these specific areas,' " he says.
The report will also look at changes that L&I has instituted since the Salvation Army collapse and see whether and how they affected the collapse of the old Shirt Corner building at 3rd and Market in March.
"We're doing a case study - a collapse before the new regulations were in effect, and a collapse after," Corbett says.
"We share one desire: to improve public safety. The mayor might have requested this report, but these recommendations are also for the citizens. They have to decide what to do with them."
Yet there will always be those who ignore them anyway, says lawyer Steven Wigrizer, who represents the family of victim Roseline Conteh in a wrongful-death suit.
"At the end of the day, there are regulations on the books that describe safe practices. These are not new concepts," Wigrizer says. "But there are building owners and developers who are intent on cutting corners and not ensuring that people who work for them are following safe practices."
Then there are the property owners who lack the capacity to recognize a looming catastrophe, says James McClain, who lost his stepfather, Salvation Army employee Borbor Davis, in the collapse.
The Salvation Army "was kind of stupid just to let everybody work when they that there was a major demolition going on next door," McClain says. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out, when you're demolishing one building that's taller than the other, that one is going to fall."
Although McClain faults crane operator Benschop, who allegedly was intoxicated the day of the disaster, he also thinks Benschop is being scapegoated by lawyers for deeper-pocketed potential defendants.
"I feel like they're trying to put the blame on one person because, if he's in a position to get sued, you're not going to get anything from him," McClain says. "So they're trying to shift everything away from the Salvation Army and ."
What a sorry year it's been. And what a long year lies ahead for loved ones seeking justice for those who perished.
Is it too much to expect an apology?
McClain says his family has never received one - from any agency, individual or company - for his stepfather's death.
What a sorry year, indeed.
- Staff writers David Gambacorta, Stephanie Farr, Dana DiFilippo and William Bender contributed to this report.
On Twitter: @RonniePhilly