Sifting Through Site of Tragedy

Forensic study begins

The same day criminal charges were formally brought against the excavator operator in last week’s fatal building collapse in Center City, engineers and lawyers picked through the rubble at the site Sunday, gathering evidence with low- and high-tech equipment for a mounting number of lawsuits.

“This was an incompetent demolition contractor and incompetent excavator operator,” he said.
Litigation is underway on behalf of at least four victims of the catastrophe that killed six workers and shoppers at the Salvation Army thrift shop Wednesday morning when a four-story brick wall fell onto the adjoining single-story shop, lawyers said.

The collapse – of a building being demolished in a blighted strip of Market Street slated for a promised revitalization – has already prompted the city to adopt new standards and enforcement actions for improving inspection of demolition sites and ensuring faster stoppage of shoddy work.

“This was an incompetent demolition contractor and incompetent excavator operator,” Robert J. Mongeluzzi, a trial lawyer who specializes in construction accidents, told reporters after analyzing the collapse site with a team of experts Sunday afternoon.

His firm, Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, filed lawsuits Friday on behalf of Jennifer Reynolds, a shopper, and Bernard DiTomo, a passerby, who were injured in the collapse.
Common Pleas Court Judge Ellen Ceisler ordered the city Friday to preserve the site so it could be examined by engineers hired as part of litigation. That action had been requested by Mongeluzzi, who also represents Salvation Army employee Nadine White, and by lawyers for Linda Bell, a shopper at the store. Both were injured.

By noon Sunday, engineers and others were photographing the site on the southeast corner of 22d and Market Streets, measuring building materials, and scribbling notes as they walked through the debris. They tested large planks of wood for stability and stepped gingerly on small piles of brick.

Some things were clear immediately, based on visual inspection and simple tools such as measuring tape. Other results will not come through until photos, videos, and three-dimensional renderings of the site are analyzed, lawyers said.

“It’s a tough situation, when people are still mourning, to make the choice of whether to go in and look at the evidence before it’s gone,” Mongeluzzi said.

He was joined by Stephen A. Estrin, an architect and engineer who specializes in forensic construction investigation and accident analysis. They spent about an hour walking the site with a photographer and videographer. Estrin declined to comment afterward, citing the preliminary nature of the investigation.

The building at 2136 Market St. being demolished – by an apparently unqualified contractor with a criminal history and inadequate insurance using unqualified workers and heavy equipment to tear down a building that loomed over a store without bracing walls or any other protection for the 20 people inside or anyone nearby – appeared to have brick load-bearing walls and some wooden supports rather than steel, Mongeluzzi said.

Such old construction “made this project impossible to demolish mechanically,” Mongeluzzi said. The demolition should have been done by hand, which would have been more expensive, he said.

sserting that property owner Richard C. Basciano was unwilling to pay for demolition by hand, Mongeluzzi added: “Unfortunately, six people in Philadelphia paid that price.”

Thomas A. Sprague, an attorney for Basciano, could not be reached for comment Sunday. Last week, he said Basciano would not comment on the collapse because of litigation.

Basciano had hired demolition contractor Griffin T. Campbell for the job. Campbell filed for bankruptcy protection in March and has a criminal record stemming from a phony car-wreck scheme involving a Philadelphia police officer, according to court records. Excavator operator Sean Benschop said Campbell hired him. Campbell could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Benschop, 42, who lives in the Hunting Park section of the city, was arraigned early Sunday on six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 counts of recklessly endangering another person, and one count of risking a catastrophe after blood tests showed marijuana in his system at levels that made him “unfit to perform safety-sensitive, job-related duties,” according to a toxicology report.

He told investigators he had taken painkillers for an arm injury. He was working Wednesday wearing an arm cast, a police source said.

Benschop is held without bail on the manslaughter charges, said Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

Benschop turned himself in Saturday, accompanied by his parents, wife, and attorney, and exercised his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Also known as Kary Roberts, he served two prison terms in the 1990s for drug convictions.

After Mongeluzzi’s team left the collapse site Sunday, lawyer Jonathan M. Cohen, representing Bell, conducted his own review.

“We’re here with a structural engineering firm, and we’re actually digitally laser-scanning the entire scene,” Cohen said.

Pausing as he stood inside the fence surrounding the site, he gestured at a yellow tripod that had been set up with a microwave-size box on top and a laptop computer nearby.

“That’s being moved to various points around the perimeter, and it’s actually taking images that’ll then be digitized into a computer system so we’ll have a full 3D digital rendering of the scene available for comparison to the prior condition,” Cohen said.

The goal, he said, is to reconstruct the tragedy by comparing how the building looked before and during demolition, as well as after the collapse.

“We’re going to reconstruct the demolition, step by step, to show exactly which phases – and believe me, there are a lot of them – … should have been done differently,” Cohen said. “A set of buildings this age, you’re dealing with … a house of cards – as soon as you start manipulating one set of loads, the rest of it is inevitably going to fall over. … You can’t just walk in with a backhoe and start knocking this down like this guy did. It’s shocking.”

That sense of shock continued to reverberate Sunday as tourists took photos from buses that passed the scene and joggers slowed to stare at the rubble.

Marc Dann, 34, of Center City, tucked a small bouquet of flowers into the chain-link fence around the site, next to a small makeshift memorial to the dead.

“Philadelphia has its share of tragedies, and this one particularly hits very hard,” Dann said.

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