The Salvation Army contributed to the casualties in the deadly 2013 collapse that crushed its Center City thrift store by failing to consider its customers' safety, an expert in retail store management testified Tuesday.
"They should have been protected before the first brick was taken off that building. That's standard practice," said Alex J. Balian, referring to a vacant four-story building undergoing demolition that collapsed and destroyed the Salvation Army thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets.
The June 5, 2013, disaster killed six people and injured 13, one of whom died 23 days later.
Balian, who owns a Los Angeles-area consulting firm specializing in retail management and store safety, was testifying for plaintiffs in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court trial of lawsuits filed on behalf of those killed and injured.
Balian, who owned and operated supermarkets for more than 25 years, told the jury that Maj. John Cranford, the ranking Salvation Army officer in charge of the Philadelphia-area thrift stores, failed in his duty to investigate danger warnings from the owner of the building undergoing demolition, New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano and his STB Investments Corp.
Balian said Cranford was among the charity officers copied on emailed warnings from STB's property manager, Thomas Simmonds. Cranford, however, never created a team of aides and thrift store employees to investigate the demolition and whether the store's workers and customers were safe, Balian said.
On June 4, 2013 - a day before the collapse - the Salvation Army's store district manager, Ralph Pomponi, visited the store to change a cash register. According to trial testimony, store manager Margarita Agosto told him of debris falling from the demolition site and her fear that the ceiling might fall in.
Balian said that Pomponi - who was briefed on May 22, 2013, in a staff meeting run by Cranford that roof and sidewalk scaffolding was supposed to be installed around the store before demolition - could see there was no protection and demolition was progressing.
Balian said the store should have been closed immediately: "They should have kept them [customers] out of the store. You don't want them coming anywhere near that store when this is going on. . . . The biggest thing is, there was no protection."
Salvation Army lawyer John J. Snyder vigorously challenged Balian's expertise, saying it was based on "commonsense" personal opinion, not widely accepted retail-industry standards.
Snyder has argued that Simmonds' warnings of an impending collapse were "puffing" to gain leverage in his talks to the Salvation Army to expedite demolition.
Balian did not disagree. But he said Salvation Army officials had no way to evaluate Simmonds' words because they never investigated what was happening next door to their Center City property.
"I can't tell you what those words mean either," Balian added. "It's up to them [Salvation Army officials] to figure out what that means."
Salvation Army officials at the charity's West Nyack, N.Y., headquarters testified earlier that they did not believe Simmonds' warnings and contended that Simmonds promised in a May 10, 2013, conference call not to demolish the vacant Hoagie City building until lawyers for both sides worked out an agreement protecting their interests.
The demolition never stopped, however, and the purported agreement to halt demolition was not memorialized in any Salvation Army or STB correspondence.
Agosto and the store's assistant manager have testified that they were never told about the danger warnings and did not know they had authority to close the store. Another Salvation Army employee in Philadelphia described a rigid chain of command that discouraged employees from relaying concerns to anyone above an immediate supervisor.