Attorneys for four people suing over the collapse of a downtown building that killed six people last week lambasted the demolition work after surveying the site Sunday.
Lawyers and consultants walked gingerly on piles of debris, indicating to photographers and videographers what they wanted documented. Meanwhile, other consultants on a hoist far above scanned the site where a four-story building under demolition gave way and toppled onto an attached Salvation Army thrift store Wednesday, killing two employees and four customers and injuring 13 others.
Afterward, attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, who said his firm represents three plaintiffs in lawsuits against the property owner and contractor, said his initial examination indicated that the building that collapsed had brick-bearing walls and wooden girders without steel support and should have been demolished by hand rather than using heavy equipment. In addition, he said, the backhoe appeared to not be high enough to pull the wall down on the side away from the thrift store.
“Of course, a demolition from the top down by hand would have been much more time-consuming and expensive but was really the only way to get this done safely,” he said.
Although Mongeluzzi said his consultant saw no evidence of steel in the rubble, attorney Jonathan Cohen, who represents the fourth plaintiff, said he had seen at least one steel I-beam, but it wasn’t where it should have been “in a well-done demolition.”
Both attorneys said they wanted to see the steel I-beam that authorities removed from the site shortly after the collapse. Mongeluzzi called its role “a mystery,” and Cohen said he believed it may have been used to help knock down the structure.
A demolition permit indicates that contractor Griffin Campbell was being paid $10,000 for the job, an amount Mongeluzzi said made him question whether an engineering survey was done.
“In this world, you get what you pay for,” he said. “This was a $10,000 demolition project, according to the permit that the owner selected, and unfortunately, six people of Philadelphia are the ones who paid that price.”
An attorney for property owner Richard Basciano and STB Investments declined to comment Sunday. A mailbox on a cellphone for contractor Griffin Campbell was full, and a woman answering the phone at his house said he wasn’t in and hung up.
Mongeluzzi’s firm represents thrift store employee Nadine White, whose lawsuit accuses Campbell of violating several federal safety regulations and says Basciano should have picked a more qualified and competent contractor. He said the firm also represents Jennifer Reynolds, a thrift store customer injured in the collapse, and Bernard Ditomo, whose car was hit by a sign when the building fell. Their lawsuits haven’t yet been processed.
Cohen, representing thrift store customer Linda Bell, said his firm was taking digital scans of the debris field to do a “virtual excavation” and recreate the collapse. Attorneys received permission Friday from a judge to examine, videotape and photograph the debris.
“We’ll be able to show – at some point, a jury – what this looks like now, how it changed from where it used to stand before they sent in a guy with a backhoe to rip down what was literally a house of cards,” he said.
Cohen said Bell, a mother of three, regularly took the bus to the thrift store to shop for toys for the children in her south Philadelphia neighborhood. When the wall collapsed, she fell into the basement and was covered by rubble for more than an hour, he said.
“She’s having a very difficult time talking about this,” he said. “She’s resting at home with family and doing the best she can.”
Also Sunday, the City Council announced it would form a special investigative committee in the wake of the collapse to review city regulations and procedures on licenses and permits, construction and demolition, building maintenance and safety, and workers’ certification.
A heavy equipment operator surrendered Saturday to face charges in the deaths, police said. Sean Benschop, 42, who has a lengthy police record, faces six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 counts of recklessly endangering another person and one count of risking a catastrophe.
Authorities believe Benschop was using an excavator at the time of the crash. His attorney called the collapse an accident for which his client wasn’t responsible.
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