Philly building collapse under investigation with 6 dead and 1 in critical condition

Rescue efforts have ended at the site of the deadly building collapse in Center City Philadelphia. The death toll stands at six, and of the 13 injured victims, one remains in critical condition. The scene will now be turned over to police, the Fire Marshall’s Office and the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections for further investigation. The first lawsuit has been filed.

A lawsuit filed late Thursday seeks financial damages on behalf of Nadine White, who was buried in rubble but survived.

“This is the most egregious construction accident I think I’ve ever been involved in,” said White’s attorney, Robert Mongeluzzi, who has represented hundreds of plaintiffs in construction mishaps and is considered one of the nation’s top lawyers in that field.

One of the deceased has been identified as Anne Bryan, a first-year student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Penn Charter School alumna and daughter of Philadelphia Treasurer Nancy Winkler.

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PAFA officials described her as “dynamic, inquisitive and smart” in a statement released Thursday. Bryan was shopping at the thrift store during the collapse.

Salvation Army officials have confirmed that two of the people killed were thrift shop employees. They have been identified as Borbor Davis, 68, of Darby Borough and Kim Finnegan, 35. 

The city has identified the three remaining shoppers who died in the collapse as Roseline Conteh, 52, Juanita Harmin, 75, and Mary Simpson.

Finnegan’s friend Heather Sizemore brought a bouquet of flowers Thursday to place at the Salvation Army shop in honor of her. 

“She was a great person, and she really knew what it was to live life,” Sizemore said. “She was recently engaged. I think it’s really awesome that she got to experience so much love and give so much love. It’s very sad.”

Wednesday was Finnegan’s first day working at the Market Street site.

Davis, a Liberian immigrant, had talked to his wife Maggie on the phone just moments before the disaster. The pastor of Davis’ church in Lansdowne said the two were seen as an “inspirational” couple by the congregation and a few years ago were honored as “father and mother of the year.”

“We’re concerned for the families who have disappointment in their life with the deaths of two of our employees and the rest of our customers. So we’re very concerned about that, and that’s really the only comment I have at this particular point in time,” said Major John Cranford. He is the administrator of the Salvation Army’s local adult rehabilitation center, which oversees thrift shop operations.

About midnight Wednesday night, rescuers found a woman in her 60s, Myra Plekan, alive in the rubble. She remains in critical condition, the only remaining patient of the six treated by the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The otehr five have been discharged. 

Rescue efforts

“Last night, we stayed the course,” said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. About 42 first responders were working on the scene until about 3 p.m, when rescue efforts were ceased. 

“We had a 13-hour search for any viable victims or deceased victims,” said Deputy Commissioner Derrick Sawyer. “When we do do our searches, we search in a coordinated effort, and we don’t stop searching until the area is clear. That’s basically what we did.”

Workers are now concentrating on clearing the rubble.

Traffic is still closed off between 21st and 23rd streets, from Market to Arch streets, and 22nd Street between Chestnut and Arch streets.

Reporting team: Elizabeth Fiedler, Brian Hickey, Holly Otterbein, Susan Phillips, Zack Seward, Kevin McCorry, Dave Davies, Maanvi Singh and Tom MacDonald contributed to this report.

L&I cracking down on contactor

No official cause, or blame, for the collapse has been assigned, but several neighbors who watched the daily dismantling of the four-story building owned by STB Investments Corporation said they were uneasy with the operation.

Onlookers and neighbors watched Wednesday evening as Dumpsters were hauled in and bulldozers were clearing debris from the site where the building fell on a Salvation Army thrift store.

“You could tell something was wrong,” said Nino Darocha, as he described watching the demolition the day before. “A fourth-grader could tell something’s not right, it’s like a Lego set. You know what I’m saying? You could tell when you’re doing something wrong.”

Some experts also are questioning the demolition practices by contractor Griffin Campbell Construction.

Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections served the contracor with a cease and desist notice Wednesday evening at a work site at at 320 Butler Avenue in Philadelphia. The three-story residence has an interior demolition permit.

According to court records, Campbell pleaded guilty to insurance fraud in 2009.

Demolition practices questioned

Campbell is properly licensed, according to a Nutter spokesman, who said the city does not conduct a criminal background check before issuing licenses for construction contractors. Campbell could not be reached for comment.

Paul Dengler of Dengler Demolition said he has torn down buildings like the one at 22nd and Market Streets before.

The key, he said, is propping up walls and floors with massive wooden beams, known as shoring.

“For me looking in the pictures, because you can see inside the building, you can see where they used no additional shoring,” Dengler said. “They were just working with what’s there, trying to be real careful and take it down a little bit at a time and it must’ve went on ’em.”

Dengler also questioned the work progressing next to an occupied building.

“As close as it is to an existing building that’s occupied, it has to be taken down by hand,” he said. “And they said there were big machines removing rafters.”

And Drexel University associate engineering professor Robert Brehm said he wonders what kind of precautions were taken.

“When you’re taking down an older structure like that, that’s adjacent to other structures, I would hope that there were procedures in place to secure those adjacent buildings, which would include evacuation of personnel,” Brehm said.

The owner of 2136-2138 Market Street, STB Investments Corp., released the following statement:

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people affected by this tragic event. Please know that we are committed to working with the City of Philadelphia and other authorities to determine what happened today.”

3-1-1 complaint

A month ago, a concerned citizen emailed Philadelphia’s 3-1-1 complaint line to alert the city about “unsafe conditions” at 2134 Market St., which was being torn down by Griffin Campbell Construction, the same company that would later begin demolishing the building that collapsed Wednesday, at 2136 Market St.

On May 8, the 3-1-1 department submitted the citizen’s report to Philadelphia’s Licenses and Inspections department, mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said.

L&I visited the property on May 14, city officials said. At that time, Griffin Campbell Construction had not yet started demolishing the now-collapsed property at 2136 Market St., Mayor Michael Nutter said.

“That building was fully intact,” Nutter said. “No work had been done yet.”

City records indicate that the inspector determined that the complaint was unfounded, “due to a proper permit on file and contractor on site.”

L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams said there is no indication of prior complaints against the inspector who investigated the claim in May.

Despite the slew of neighbors and passersby who complained yesterday that the demolition looked shoddy, the city said 3-1-1 received no other recent reports about the properties at 2132, 2134 and 2136 Market St.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration also received a complaint about the construction company prior to the tragedy. On May 15, OSHA conducted an inspection of the company’s construction site.

A spokeswoman said she cannot comment on the findings, since the investigation is still active

Scavengers worked the site

Neighbors living in the apartment building across the street described night-time raids by scavengers and no evidence of security. Several wondered, even a week ago, why the attached Salvation Army Thrift Store continued to operate during the demolition.

But Nutter says that’s normal.

“There are demolitions that take place in the city on a daily basis, some are in residential neighborhoods next to where people live so its not unusual that people would be in a store or a building where there is a demolition taking place,” Nutter said Wednesday evening.

No one from the Salvation Army operation was available to answer questions.

Neighborhood known for ‘porn king’

Richard Basciano, known as the “porn king,” is a company officer at building owner STB Investments Corporation, according to city officials. Basciano once owned pornographic theaters in New York City. STB Investments also owns several properties near the Philadelphia building, including a former porn establishment called the Forum that recently closed. Efforts to reach Basciano were unsuccessful.

According to an Inquirer article last year, Basciano said he wanted to get out of the porn business and redevelop the area.

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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