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Top aide to Basciano says collapse unexpected: they trusted demolition architect

Salvation Army officials called him "obnoxious" and "pushy," and said he and his associates "would not know the truth if it slapped them in the face."

Salvation Army officials called him "obnoxious" and "pushy," and said he and his associates "would not know the truth if it slapped them in the face."

He referred to the Salvation Army as "that half-baked charity" and disdained the way it dealt with him.

Thomas J. Simmonds was in the thick of things in the weeks preceding the deadly 2013 Center City building collapse, and on Tuesday, the one-time chief aide to real estate speculator Richard Basciano took the witness stand in the Philadelphia civil trial in the collapse that killed six and injured 13, one of whom later died.

"Do you have the power or ability to predict the future?" was the first question from defense attorney Thomas A. Sprague, representing Basciano and his STB Investments Corp.

Basciano owned the demolition site where an unbraced multistory wall toppled on June 5, 2013, and crushed the Salvation Army thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets.

"No, I don't," replied Simmonds.

"At any time before June 5," continued Sprague, "did you have any reason to believe a collapse of the building would occur?"

"No," replied Simmonds.

"Did you have any reason to believe anyone would be harmed as a result of this demolition project?"

"No," said Simmonds.

Sprague's questions went to the heart of the trial of lawsuits filed on behalf of those killed and injured, now in its eighth week.

And when Simmonds returns to the witness stand Wednesday for what is likely to be several days of questioning, he will be asked to reconcile his denials with his dire warnings of imminent disaster and loss of life expressed in emails exchanged with ranking Salvation Army officials in the month before the disaster.

The emails were sent at a time when Simmonds was trying to persuade charity officials to give demolition workers access to the roof of the one-story thrift store to help demolish the four-story brick wall shared with STB's vacant Hoagie City building.

The building was one of several in the 2100 block of Market that Basciano wanted razed to make way for his planned high-rise residential-commercial complex called Gateway.

But Salvation Army officials, soured by earlier negotiations with Basciano to acquire the thrift store property, rebuffed requests for roof access.

Simmonds sent charity officers seven emails warning of the danger to "life and limb," public safety, and "headlines none of us want to see or read."

Simmonds turned out to be prescient. But in his pretrial deposition last December, Simmonds insisted that the wording of his emails was "puffing" - an attempt to gain bargaining leverage with the Salvation Army.

Simmonds, who said he was laid off from Basciano's company in March after an "overall reduction in workforce," followed Basciano's legal strategy: blaming the collapse on Center City architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr. Simmonds and Basciano hired Marinakos to oversee demolition of the Hoagie City and other Basciano buildings in the 2100 block of Market.

Questioned by Sprague, Simmonds testified that Marinakos misled him by saying that the architect and the demolition contractor he recommended for the project were experienced in building demolition.

According to trial testimony, neither Marinakos nor demolition contractor Griffin Campbell had any experience razing multistory commercial buildings.

"His recommendation was to select Griffin Campbell because he had done a lot of demolitions and found him to be competent and capable," Simmonds said.

In addition to Basciano and STB, those being sued include Marinakos, Campbell, and excavator operator Sean Benschop.

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

215-854-2985 @joeslobo