Accountability, But No Closure, In Center City Building Collapse Trial

In eight years covering the Philadelphia court’s system closure is not a word I’ve heard from victims or their families.

And last Wednesday’s announcement of the $227-million settlement in the civil trial from the 2013 Center City building collapse that killed seven and injured 12 did not change my mind.

There was relief on the faces of the survivors of the disaster that destroyed the Salvation Army thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets, as well as the families of those who didn’t make it.

But I didn’t see smiles or any hint of celebration.

“No amount of money can bring any of these victims back,” said lawyer Adam E. Grutzmacher, at a plaintiffs’ post-settlement news conference at the Center City law office of Robert J. Mongeluzzi.

Grutzmacher represented one of those who died: Kimberly Finnegan, 35, who was working the cash register – her first day on the job at the thrift store – when the unbraced three- to four-story brick wall buried the thrift store and instantly killed six people inside. A seventh died 23 days later.

A few hours before the settlement was announced in court, Grutzmacher told reporters, he called Finnegan’s mother in Lewes, Del., to relay the news.

“She has quite frankly isolated herself from this process for over four years … And she was thrilled that it was over,” Grutzmacher said.

“She was thrilled that I was able to help her family. She was thrilled that I was able to help her eldest son, who’s the administrator of the estate because she, quite frankly, couldn’t fathom having to deal with any of it.”

Then, Grutzmacher said, the line went silent and “I asked her, Mrs. Finnegan, do you want to know any of the details? And she said ‘I don’t want to know anything, I don’t even care what the amount is.'”

Mongeluzzi said that in more than 30 years representing plaintiffs in catastrophic personal injury cases, “They never ask about the money. That is an inconsolable wound. It’s not a scar, it doesn’t go away. It never, ever heals.”

“There is no closure and when it’s a child it’s an even deeper wound that just never goes away,” Mongeluzzi added.

Mongeluzzi’s law firm represented the families of several of those who died and some of the survivors.

Among his clients were former city treasurer Nancy Winkler and her husband, Jay Bryan, whose 24-year-old daughter, Anne, was killed in the collapse along with Anne’s friend, Mary Simpson, also 24, who was visiting from San Jose, Calif.

Mongeluzzi said Winkler and Bryan were interested in spurring reform involving construction and demolition. Both testified at a series of hearings that led to reform of city regulations involving construction and demolition.

Winkler and Bryan have also been instrumental in pushing for a memorial to the collapse victims, which is being built now on the ground of the thrift store, which was donated to the city by the Salvation Army.

“I do believe that Philadelphia is a safer place today as a result of this case and this verdict,” said Steven G. Wigrizer, a lawyer who represented the family of Roseline Conteh, 52, a native of Sierra Leone who died in the collapse.

Information was a priority for all the plaintiffs and a key reason why the civil trial went through a liability verdict before the settlement.

The survivors and families of those who died wanted to know why the collapse happened and who was responsible. Many felt that the 2015 criminal trial that resulted in the convictions and imprisonment of the demolition contractor and his excavator operator left too many questions unanswered.

“The victims in this case wanted answers and they wanted accountability,” said lawyer Jeffrey P. Goodman, one of Mongeluzzi’s partners.

“And for the last five months, we have been in court every day getting answers to why this happened and trying to hold the responsible people accountable. … Although [the settlement] doesn’t do anything to bring back the loved ones or heal the harm, it is at least a measure of accountability and a measure of justice for the victims.”

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