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'Just trying to get attention' -Testimony in Salvation Army store deaths: warnings of imminent collapse were not serious

Throughout May 2013, Thomas J. Simmonds sent emails warning of imminent death and destruction at his company's Center City demolition site to the Salvation Army, lawyers, and city officials.

Throughout May 2013, Thomas J. Simmonds sent emails warning of imminent death and destruction at his company's Center City demolition site to the Salvation Army, lawyers, and city officials.

On Wednesday, the former top aide to real estate speculator Richard Basciano tried to convince a Philadelphia jury that he was not serious - that he was just trying to get movement on a project he felt was proceeding too slowly.

Unfortunately for Basciano and his STB Investments Corp., Simmonds' warnings turned out to be accurate.

On June 5, 2013, Basciano's four-story Hoagie City building, which was being razed, collapsed and destroyed the adjacent Salvation Army thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets. Six people were killed and 13 injured, one of whom died 23 days later.

Questioning Simmonds at the civil trial of lawsuits filed in the collapse, Basciano's attorney, Thomas A. Sprague, showed Simmonds a copy of his May 22, 2013, email to Alan Greenberger, then the city's deputy mayor for economic development.

Simmonds asked for Greenberger's help breaking an impasse between STB and the Salvation Army about access to the thrift store room to ease demolition.

"This nonsense must end before someone is seriously injured or worse," Simmonds' email read. "Those are headlines none of us want to read or see."

Did he believe what he wrote, Sprague asked.

Simmonds, 54, paused, and his voice seemed to crack as he replied.

"Looking back now, I don't know why I used those words," Simmonds said. "Unfortunately, that terrible thing did occur, a tragic, tragic event that has touched my life and others' in ways that can't be imagined."

Plaintiffs' lawyers maintain that Simmonds' words could not be clearer. They contend the emails are evidence of Basciano's and STB's disregard for regulations governing construction and public safety.

Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a plaintiffs' lawyer, challenged Simmonds' assertion in testimony Tuesday that he never countenanced violating city building laws.

Mongeluzzi then confronted Simmonds with an email exchange on Jan. 9, 2013, with Center City architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr., STB's agent monitoring demolition of several Basciano buildings in the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Market.

Marinakos wrote that demolition began on an old theater before there was a proper demolition permit, and Simmonds said he did not want the city to find out and issue a stop-work order.

Marinakos replied that the workers had removed the roof and were doing interior work, and would try to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

Mongeluzzi accused Simmonds of knowingly going along with an illegal demolition, but Simmonds called it "interior prep work for demolition."

Simmonds testified that Marinakos assured him a permit was not needed for interior work.

"Are you just making this up as an excuse?" Mongeluzzi countered, adding, "Have all your other answers been this truthful?"

"All of my answers have been truthful," Simmonds said.

Marinakos testified earlier in the trial, blaming the collapse on the demolition contractor he recommended to Simmonds for the work. Marinakos said he feels no responsibility for the collapse.

Simmonds returns to the witness stand Tuesday, after a break for the Thanksgiving holiday, when the Common Pleas Court trial enters its ninth week.

In addition to Basciano and STB, those being sued include Marinakos, North Philadelphia contractor Griffin 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 failing to warn store employees and customers. 215-854-2985 @joeslobo