The owner of the Center City building that collapsed onto an adjacent Salvation Army Thrift Store was on site at the time of the disaster that killed seven people, according to a newly consolidated lawsuit filed last week.
Not only that, the suit alleges, the owner was gone before the bricks and dust settled.
It is the first time that the name of Richard Basciano of STB Investments Corp. has come up as being present at the time of the collapse on June 5, 2013. Basciano was redeveloping a strip of properties he owned on the 2100 block of Market Street that had included a rundown adult theater, a peep show parlor, and a pornographic goods shop.
According to the wrongful-death suit, Basciano was a regular presence on site, where he watched the demolition of the former Hoagie City shop "and managed virtually every aspect of the construction."
On the morning of June 5, the suit claims, Basciano and his wife, Lois, visited the site to confer with contractor Griffin Campbell as an 18-ton yellow excavator clawed at what remained of the Hoagie City structure. The lateral beams of the building had already been removed, in violation of OSHA rules, leaving nothing to support the wall it shared with the thrift shop, according to the suit.
Customers continued to enter the thrift shop that morning as demolition continued.
Then, at 10:41 a.m., the wall began to crumple.
The defense attorney for Campbell corroborated the claims made in the 187-page lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of 22 plaintiffs. They include the estates of seven people who were killed as a result of the collapse.
"As the building actually fell, Richard Basciano was standing next to my client," said Campbell's attorney, William Hobson in an interview with Philly.com. "That's reflected in statements given to Philadelphia police detectives and the OSHA investigator. He was there with Lois."
The suit does not state if the two men were conversing.
After the collapse, Campbell noticed that Basciano was gone, Hobson said.
"He was remarkably nowhere to be found as soon as the building fell," echoed the suit, which did not speculate on where Basciano might have gone.
Basciano, an octogenarian dubbed "New York's undisputed prince of porn" by the New York Daily News in 2008, made millions from Times Square properties he has owned for decades.
In that interview, which the Daily News described as Basciano's first in 30 years, the former porn proprietor described himself as the "nemesis" of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, dating to Giuliani's fight to clean up the smut-ridden Times Square of the 1980s.
In the decades since, he amassed a Center City real estate portfolio that included a seedy Market Street porn theater. The demolition work that led to the disaster was reportedly part of his vision to remake that block with high-end homes and retail.
Basciano is a high school dropout and former boxer who as of last year was worth roughly $150 million. He and his wife own an apartment at the Symphony House on South Broad Street.
He has proven difficult to track down since the building collapse. Efforts by a Philadelphia Daily News columnist to talk with Basciano at his Symphony House home were unsuccessful. A short statement from STB Investments after the collapse is all that Basciano has issued on the catastrophe:
"Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to the people affected by this tragic event. Please know that we are committed to working with the City of Philadelphia and other authorities to determine what happened."
Attorney Peter Greiner, of the law firm Sprague & Sprague, which is representing Basciano, declined to comment on the claims contained in the consolidated lawsuit filed Sept. 16 in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
Nineteen people were in the thrift store at the time of the collapse. Seven of those died of injuries sustained in the catastrophe. The others were seriously injured, including a woman whose legs required amputation.
The suit points to numerous communications between Basciano's company and the Salvation Army brass, contending that both were well aware of the possibility of collapse five months before the disaster.
An attorney for the excavator operator, Sean Benschop, also declined to comment, citing a gag order issued last week in the criminal case involving Benschop and Campbell. They are the only people charged criminally in the collapse.
A previously released cache of email, obtained by The Inquirer in December, documented that Basciano and STB's staff were "aggressively pushing for demolition progress," according to a presentment by the grand jury investigating the collapse.
Campbell himself felt rushed by several of his own bosses and felt particularly pressured by Basciano, according to attorney Hobson.
Campbell also felt his ability to safely demolish the building was hampered by the Salvation Army, which refused to allow him on to their roof to take apart the wall by hand.
Hobson said he visited Campbell at the site three weeks before the crash. Campbell, he said, was worried.
According to Hobson, Campbell told him: "The safest way for me to do this is brick-by-brick to get on top of the Salvation Army and build simple braces so the bricks go the other way."
Campbell, Hobson said, sneaked onto the roof during weekend hours and at night when the thrift shop was closed and unoccupied to complete some of the work.
But months before the collapse, STB staff registered concerns about the safety of the site. STB's architect, Plato Marinakos, conducted an architectural and structural analysis and in his report concluded the Salvation Army store was "barely sound and in an extreme state of neglect and disrepair."
Despite those concerns, Basciano's group embarked on the demolition of the other properties on the block. Nothing in the consolidated suit offers a clue as to why Basciano and STB wanted the project done quickly.
The architect's report was followed by a series of emails in May from STB's project manager Thomas Simmonds to Salvation Army officials. The emails warned that the thrift shop could "catastrophically collapse" and posed "a threat to life, limb and public safety," according to email included in the consolidated suit.
Another email, sent by Simmonds to Salvation Army and city officials on May 10, warned that Basciano's building was "nearly demolished and every minute that passes increases the liability exposure to all parties."
The suit claims the Salvation Army "stubbornly remained open" and refused to allow demolition workers access to the shop roof.
In one response to one of STB's ominous emails, a Salvation Army official worried that the demolition would damage the store's goods for sale, according to an email included in the suit.
In frustration, STB's project manager Simmonds emailed city officials warning that the impasse between the parties "must end before someone is seriously injured or worse: those are headlines none of us want to see or read."
Campbell, 50, and Benschop, 43, have been charged criminally with six counts of third-degree murder each and faces mandatory sentences of life in prison if convicted on more than one of the counts. Benschop and Campbell are both being held without bail awaiting trial.
Hobson said it was unlikely that Basciano would bear any criminal responsibility for the collapse, sit for a deposition, or even appear as a witness at his client's criminal trial.
The consolidated wrongful-death suit seeks unspecified damages of more than $50,000 for each of the victims. It also demands a jury trial. None of the attorneys involved in the criminal case can discuss the lawsuit due to the court-imposed gag order.
In addition to Campbell and Benschop, the wrongful-death suit names Richard and Lois Basciano, STB Investments, four entities of the Salvation Army, and nearly a dozen other defendants.