Excavator operator says he knew of risk, but followed orders before 2013 fatal building collapse

 A piece of wall holds back some of the rubble from the 2013 collapse. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

A piece of wall holds back some of the rubble from the 2013 collapse. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

For more than three hours Thursday, Sean Benschop sat across from his former boss and talked about the day that forever changed their lives.

June 5, 2013. The day a 30-foot, freestanding wall collapsed and crushed a neighboring Salvation Army Thrift Store. The day six people lost their lives.

General contractor Griffin Campbell, on trial for third-degree murder charges, hired Benschop to help demolish a four-story building at 22nd and Market streets in Center City Philadelphia.

On the day of the collapse, Benschop said he was chipping away at the building’s eastern wall with an excavator when the wall caved in instead of out.

“It hit the joists and the building collapsed,” he said.

Benschop, who had done demolition work long before he touched the “Hoagie City” building, testified that he knew it was dangerous to use heavy machinery to take down a building.

The dilemma, he said, was that he needed money – for bills and to feed his family.

“It’s a no-win situation,” said Benschop.

Still, he said he should have walked away from the job before the collapse. Instead, he’s facing up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and other charges in July.

Benschop will be sentenced at the end of Campbell’s trial.

“I’m in prison. I lost my family. I lost my job. Lost everything,” said Benschop.

Benschop testified against Campbell as part of his plea deal.

On several occasions, Benschop said he shared concerns with Campbell about the building’s western wall, the one that pancaked onto the Salvation Army store below.

Each time, Campbell told him his workers would take care of it and that Benschop should focus on taking down the building’s eastern wall, he said.

“I trust what he said,” said Benschop.

Before he came onsite, Benschop said, Griffin asked him to get estimates on renting a high-reach to take down the wall by hand, but that equipment was never used.

Immediately after the collapse, Campbell asked Benschop if he had insurance. Benschop asked him the same.

Ten minutes later Benschop was en route to the hospital.

Two days later, he was arrested.

Bill Hobson, Campbell’s attorney, repeatedly questioned Benschop about his daily habit of smoking marijuana, including the morning of the collapse.

Benschop said he smoked every morning and night to help spur his appetite and that it never impacted his work abilities. He said a medical condition causes him to not have an appetite.

It’s a fact he said he hid from the city, Campbell and police officers who interviewed him the day of the collapse.

Testimony from collapse victim

Earlier Thursday, the jury heard painful testimony from Mariya Plekan, who lost both of her legs after being trapped in the rubble for nearly 14 hours.

Plekan rode the bus to the thrift store that day during a break from caring for her deceased husband’s elderly relatives.

She often went on Wednesdays – family day – when items in the popular store were discounted.

Plekan said she was preparing to leave when the wall collapsed.

“I heard a cracking sound … and I saw steel beam come down,” said Plekan through a Ukrainian translator.

Hour after hour, Plekan sat packed in a space so tight she couldn’t reach into her pocket to answer her ringing cell phone.

At one point, she said she heard someone directly above her. She screamed for help to no avail.

“I lost hope at that point that anyone would ever find me,” said Plekan, who wept openly throughout her testimony.

Eventually, the site above her seemed quiet. She worried she’d be left behind.

“Then I heard the breathing of the dog,” said Plekan.

With what little energy she had left, she once more yelled for help.

“There’s a living person here,” someone responded.

Rescuers rushed to Plekan and, fairly quickly, she was removed from the rubble and loaded into an ambulance.

In the two years since, Plekan said she’s had more than 30 surgeries, including having her legs amputated. She’s in pain much of the time.

“It’s very, very difficult for me. I still have trouble breathing. I still need a lot of rehabilitation,” said Plekan. “There’s very little I can do for myself.”

Plekan now lives in a nursing home. Her children have moved from Ukraine to help her.

The commonwealth is expected to wrap up its case Friday.

Hobson is expected to start his on Tuesday following the Columbus Day holiday. And Campbell is expected to testify.

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