More than five months later, city officials still haven’t explained why a botched demolition project that left six people dead inside a Salvation Army thrift store wasn’t stopped before the tragedy occurred.
There has been no satisfactory answer as to why the Department of Licenses and Inspections would approve an application that priced the demolition of buildings adjacent to the store at $10,000 when industry experts estimated it would cost $250,000.
Equally troubling, an L&I inspector visited the site before the job started, and again after a complaint, but wasn’t required to inspect it while work was ongoing. Even if he were required to visit the site more often, it would have been difficult given the 700 work orders reportedly assigned to him.
The contractor eventually used an excavator during the demolition, which allegedly led to the June 5 collapse of a wall onto the thrift store. The resulting deaths apparently so depressed the L&I inspector that he took his own life, though there was no indication that he was at fault.
Most troubling of all is that the owner of the buildings being torn down, STB Investments, had warned top city officials and the Salvation Army that the demolition could endanger the thrift store, and yet STB continued with the project.
Many lingering questions about the cause of this tragedy will likely be answered in court. But questions concerning needed changes in the policies, procedures, and staffing of L&I must be addressed by city officials.
Unfortunately, the city can’t expect much help going forward from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces demolition safety rules. The agency announced Thursday that it had fined the demolition contractors $397,000 for deliberately neglecting fundamental safety rules. But OSHA has only 11 inspectors in the region – hardly enough to do more than respond to complaints.
Mayor Nutter has appointed a commission to study L&I, which was a recommendation also made by City Treasurer Nancy Winkler, whose daughter, Anne Bryan, a 24-year-old artist, was killed inside the thrift store. In an Oct. 18 commentary on The Inquirer’s editorial page, Winkler and Bryan’s father, Jay Bryan, called for an independent panel of national experts to advise the city on how to reform L&I.
Nutter has already raised the city’s demolition standards to require more scrutiny by inspectors, which is important in a city with so many decaying buildings that probably should be considered for demolition. His blue-ribbon panel must determine what else should be done.
The commission must examine events leading up to the thrift store tragedy and make sound recommendations that will not only lessen the possibility of similar tragedies occurring but vastly improve the way L&I operates. Then, it will be up to city officials to make sure the panel’s recommendations aren’t tucked away on a shelf and forgotten.
“Our objective is to bring the mayor a plan to make this the best L&I department in the United States,” said Peter Vaira, the commission’s director. That’s the right standard. L&I officials shouldn’t have to lament after a tragedy like the thrift store deaths that they didn’t have the ability or staff to prevent it.