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Plaintiffs rest in civil trial from 2013 Center City building collapse

After 29 days of testimony by 26 witnesses, lawyers for the six people killed and 13 injured in the 2013 demolition collapse that destroyed the Salvation Army thrift store in Center City completed their civil case Friday.

After 29 days of testimony by 26 witnesses, lawyers for the six people killed and 13 injured in the 2013 demolition collapse that destroyed the Salvation Army thrift store in Center City completed their civil case Friday.

The plaintiffs concluded with Mariya Plekan, the 55-year-old Ukrainian immigrant who was buried in the rubble for 13 hours after an unbraced three- to four-story wall on a demolition site toppled and crushed the thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets.

Plekan was the most grievously injured survivor. Both legs were amputated at the hip. She then survived kidney failure and other complications before she was moved two years ago to a West Philadelphia nursing home.

Unlike October 2015, when she testified in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court criminal trial of the demolition contractor and excavator operator involved in the collapse, Plekan entered the courtroom Friday in her motorized wheelchair, unable to speak in her own voice.

Plekan has developed lung problems and had a tracheotomy to improve her breathing. Now, her speech is electronically produced, using a device she presses to her neck when she talks.

Her words translated by a Ukrainian interpreter, Plekan's testimony had little of the emotion of her appearance in the criminal trial, where she described being buried alive and almost giving up.

"This is my hell," Plekan testified last year.

Plekan's low-key testimony was by design. The jurors in the civil trial must first decide which, if any, of the defendants are liable for money damages. Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina has told plaintiffs' lawyers to steer victim-witnesses away from their personal ordeals so as not to emotionally inflame the jury.

That aspect would come before the jury in a damages phase once the jury decides liability.

Still, Plekan wiped tears from her eyes when her attorney Andrew J. Stern projected a photo of her standing before the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He asked if she walked and spoke unaided before June 5, 2013. She said yes.

Despite the judge's warning, the emotion could not be wrung from the testimony of Rodney Geddis, 25, a Salvation Army store worker who survived.

Geddis seemed subdued and in control as attorney Jeffrey P. Goodman asked about the weeks before the collapse. Then Goodman asked about the moment of the collapse.

Geddis froze in the witness chair, buried his face in his hands, and sobbed.

The judge called a recess and sent the jurors out until Geddis was ready to proceed.

At the criminal trial last year, Geddis wept as he described how he survived only because the store manager called him up from his job in the basement to hang pictures. Another store worker, Borbor Davis, 68, went downstairs in Geddis' place and died.

As soon as lawyer Robert J. Mongeluzzi announced the end of plaintiffs' testimony, Sarmina called on the defense.

Thomas A. Sprague, attorney for the owner of the building being demolished, real estate speculator Richard Basciano and his STB Investments Corp., began with Geoffrey N. Irvine, a Cinnaminson-based expert in commercial-property management.

Irvine testified that Basciano and his property manager, Thomas Simmonds, fulfilled their responsibilities under his profession's "standard of care" by hiring Center City architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr. to monitor the project and recommend the contractor to raze the building.

Plaintiffs' lawyer Steven G. Wigrizer argued they failed in that duty because they never researched the resumés of Marinakos or Griffin Campbell, the demolition contractor. According to trial testimony, neither Marinakos nor Campbell had experience demolishing a multistory commercial building.

Irvine insisted Basciano and Simmonds were in the clear: "I believe they needed to do what they knew to be adequate."

In addition to Basciano and STB, those being sued include Marinakos, STB's agent overseeing demolition, and the demolition contractor and excavator operator.

The Salvation Army is being sued for purportedly ignoring the growing danger at the demolition site next door and failing to warn store employees and customers.

215-854-2985 @joeslobo