Friday, September 23, 2016

Defense lawyers blame one another's clients for deadly 2013 collapse of the Salvation Army building in Philadelphia

'The wall came in,' says survivor of deadly 2013 collapse Updated: September 22, 2016 — 1:08 AM EDT

LUKE RAFFERTY / Staff File Photo Felicia Hill points to a photo of the Salvation Army building when telling her story of how she escaped from the building collapse in 2013.

by Joseph A. Slobodzian, Staff Writer

It was "out of the blue," recalled Felicia Hill.
One moment, Hill testified, she was chatting with Salvation Army coworker Nadine White, complimenting her about the way she did her hair.

"I heard a noise . . . and then all of a sudden the wall came in," Hill told a Philadelphia jury Wednesday, recalling the moment on the morning of June 5, 2013, when the remnants of a building being demolished crushed the Salvation Army's thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets in Center City.

Hill was the first witness as testimony began in the civil trial to determine who, if anyone, should be held financially liable to the families of the six people killed and 13 injured that morning. One of the injured died 23 days later.

The lawsuits contend that those demolishing the neighboring building at 2136-38 Market St. - and the wealthy New York real estate speculator who hired them - were incompetent and "grossly negligent."

Hill, who was 36 at the time of the collapse, was one of the survivors. She and White were in the sorting area of the thrift store, near the rear of the narrow, one-story building, at 22nd and Ludlow Streets.

Two Salvation Army employees died, along with four shoppers.

Questioned by her attorney, Jeffrey P. Goodman, Hill described how a day earlier, she and White had joked about whether the roof would fall, because of the sound of debris landing from the vacant four-story Hoagie City building that towered above them.

Salvation Army lawyer William J. Carr Jr. focused on Hill's comment to her coworker. Neither she nor her coworkers ever seriously thought they were in danger before the collapse, Carr suggested.

"I didn't think it would happen," Hill replied.

Also testifying Wednesday was Brian Stumm, a veteran union carpenter, who was supervising renovations on the roof of the Mutter Museum, across Ludlow Street from the rear of the store.

Stumm testified that in May 2013, he snapped five photographs looking down on the demolition work.

Testifying for the first time in public, Stumm said he had been concerned because demolition workers across the street were working on exposed joists and open flooring without safety harnesses to save them if they slipped.

Stumm said the workers also tossed bricks and other debris to Ludlow.

"They were dropping bricks and they were bouncing every which way in the street," Stumm said. "These guys didn't have people watching on the ground."

Stumm said that on May 15, he called the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and reported the situation. OSHA inspectors visited the site but, according to testimony in last year's criminal trial involving the collapse, did not cite the demolition contractor for violating workplace safety rules.

Questioned by lawyer Thomas A. Sprague, representing Richard Basciano, the owner of the Hoagie City property, Stumm acknowledged that he did not believe - or tell OSHA - that the Hoagie City building was in danger of collapsing.

A month later, on June 5, Stumm testified, he was on 22nd Street, just south of Ludlow, when "I heard a couple of loud pops, turned around, and saw a piece of the west wall come down and a cloud of dust."


Defense lawyers blame one another's clients for deadly 2013 collapse Updated: September 21, 2016 — 1:08 AM EDT

  ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer Workers remove the remnants of the Salvation Army store at 22nd and Market Streets after a neighboring four-story building collapsed, killing six people and injuring 13 in 2013.

by Joseph A. Slobodzian, Staff Writer

Lawyers for those sued in the deadly 2013 Center City building collapse made their opening statements to a Philadelphia civil jury Tuesday, each defendant casting blame elsewhere for the disaster that killed six and injured 13.
Thomas A. Sprague, the attorney for Richard Basciano, the New York real estate speculator who owned a building being demolished that toppled and crushed a Salvation Army thrift store, put the blame on Philadelphia architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr.

Marinakos was hired as the demolition architect and "owner's representative" by Basciano and top aides at his STB Investments Corp. to monitor the progress of demolition of five Basciano buildings on the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Market Street.

Sprague told the jury that Marinakos committed a "gross deviation" of his professional responsibilities to Basciano and STB: He steered a low-bid demolition contract to Griffin Campbell, an inexperienced and unlicensed North Philadelphia contractor, and he told no one when on June 4, 2013 - the evening before the collapse - he saw an unbraced three- to four-story wall towering above the one-story thrift store.

"As a professional, he had a responsibility, an obligation to notify the authorities of what he saw on the evening of June 4," Sprague told the jury. "He kept it from everyone but himself."

Marinakos' lawyer, Neil P. Clain Jr., put the responsibility for the collapse on Campbell and, mostly, on Sean Benschop, owner of a 36,000-pound excavator, who was hired by Campbell to help demolish the four-story "Hoagie City" building at 2136-38 Market St.

Benschop was picking at the building with an I-beam grasped in the excavator's claw when the building's unsupported wall toppled onto the Salvation Army store.

"Plato Marinakos had no control over him and how he did the job," Clain said, referring to Benschop.

Campbell and Benschop were the only two people prosecuted criminally for the collapse. Marinakos testified against both after being granted immunity from prosecution by the District Attorney's Office.

Benschop pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and testified against Campbell at trial last year. Campbell was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Both are serving long prison terms and are being sued, although they are considered penniless.

Campbell's attorney Bryan P. Werley told the jury that Benschop violated Campbell's instructions by using the excavator to demolish the building instead of loading recycled materials into a dumpster. And Werley blamed Marinakos for directing how and when the Hoagie City building was demolished.

Benschop, the only person to have taken responsibility for his role in the collapse, is not represented in the trial. But in a video deposition, he maintained that he was reluctantly following Campbell's explicit instructions in using the excavator.

Salvation Army attorney John J. Snyder told the jury that "the Salvation Army did not have a role in the collapse."

Basciano's lawyers have contended that the Salvation Army bore some responsibility because charity officials refused to allow Campbell's workers onto the thrift store's roof to facilitate the Hoagie City demolition.

Basciano's lawyers argued that Salvation Army officials ignored STB's warnings of an imminent danger to public safety because of the precarious state of the Hoagie City building.

Snyder, however, argued that most of the "warning emails" by STB property manager Thomas Simmonds never reached relevant officials of the Salvation Army, and that those that did were dismissed as "rants" by a man who had difficulty controlling his temper.

Snyder argued that STB, and by extension its employees Marinakos, Campbell, and Benschop, had the sole responsibility under the law to see that the Hoagie City building was demolished without endangering adjacent properties or public safety.

The plaintiffs' lawyers presented their openings Monday, telling the jury that all the defendants should be held financially liable for their roles in what they described as a chain of recklessness and gross negligence that ended in the disaster.