Hired "Expert Carpenter" Stephen A. Estrin: Inexperienced Architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr. bears main responsibility for deadly Center City building collapse
Updated: September 23, 2016 — 5:27 PM EDT
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer Plato Marinakos Jr. was the supervising architect on the project that resulted in a deadly building collapse in 2013 .
by Joseph A. Slobodzian, STAFF WRITER
Center City architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr. is the person most responsible for the deadly 2013 collapse that crushed a Salvation Army thrift store, a construction expert testified Friday.
Marinakos was hired by New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano to act as his representative overseeing demolition of five Basciano buildings in the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Market Street.
On June 5, 2013, an unbraced three- to four-story brick wall remaining from a vacant four-story building toppled over onto the neighboring one-story Salvation Army store, killing six people and injuring 13.
"When did this project become dangerous?" plaintiffs' lawyer Robert J. Mongeluzzi asked construction and demolition industry expert Stephen A. Estrin.
"The moment they hired Mr. Marinakos as the owner's representative," replied Estrin.
Estrin, 77, began a second day of testimony Friday in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court civil trial of lawsuits on behalf of those killed and injured in the disaster.
Estrin is a former carpenter and general contractor who began his apprenticeship at age 14. For the last eight years, he has worked as a "forensic construction consultant" analyzing building failures. He has worked for Mongeluzzi in litigation involving the 2000 Pier 34 collapse on the Delaware River, which killed three people and injured 43, and the 2003 collapse of a parking garage under construction at the Tropicana Casino Resort in Atlantic City, which killed four people and injured dozens.
Estrin excoriated Marinakos, telling the jury of six men and six women that Marinakos, although a registered professional architect, had no experience overseeing construction or demolition.
Referring to quotes from Marinakos' deposition, Estrin said Marinakos admitted not knowing that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration had rules governing worker safety on demolition sites and never did any research.
When Mongeluzzi asked Estrin to detail the flaws in Marinakos' demolition plan, Estrin shot back: "There was never a plan."
"This was a haphazard operation done by totally incompetent people, and they did whatever they wanted from day to day," Estrin added.
On June 4, 2013, the day before the collapse, Marinakos visited the site and said he was horrified to see the freestanding wall looming above the thrift store. He called the contractor and told him the wall had to be down by morning.
That order, Estrin said, was impossible to accomplish. Yet Marinakos never called police, city authorities, or OSHA to report the danger, or called the men who hired him - Basciano and Thomas Simmonds, , property manager for Basciano’s STB Investments Corp. - to seek permission to close the demolition site.
Marinakos, 50, sat alone and almost inconspicuous in the gallery of the large courtroom and did not react to the criticisms from the witness stand.
The lawsuits contend that Marinakos was part of a chain of negligence that began with the 91-year-old Basciano and continued down to Griffin Campbell, the North Philadelphia demolition contractor whom Marinakos recommended to Basciano and Thomas Simmonds, property manager for Basciano's STB Investments Corp.
Citing sworn statements from Simmonds' pretrial deposition, Estrin noted that Simmonds never researched Marinakos' experience as an owner's representative in a major demolition project.
Basciano and Simmonds then accepted Marinakos' recommendation of Campbell, whose demolition experience consisted of two burned-out rowhouses. Campbell had no city license when he signed the contract, no company or corporate bank account, or liability insurance covering demolition work.
Estrin returns to the witness stand when the trial resumes Monday for additional questioning by Peter A. Greiner, a lawyer for Basciano's STB company.
On Friday, Greiner challenged Estrin's testimony on two fronts. He referred once to Estrin as a "supposed expert" and said his opinions were more personal than commonly accepted construction industry standards.
But he also had Estrin agree that Marinakos violated terms of his contract with STB by not informing them he thought the demolition had become a hazard to public safety.
Greiner also argued that it was unrealistic for an absentee owner to be expected to know all the laws and regulations governing construction and demolition when choosing a contractor.
Estrin said that "good due diligence" required that Basciano and Simmonds should have "looked for someone fully qualified to assist in making that decision."