‘I didn’t kill anybody,’ says contractor in deadly Philly building collapse

 The building collapsed onto the nearby Salvation Army Thrift Store at 22nd and Market Streets.  (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

The building collapsed onto the nearby Salvation Army Thrift Store at 22nd and Market Streets. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

It started with a woman’s scream.

On June 5, 2013, Griffin Campbell stood at 22nd and Market streets, his back to the four-story building he was hired to demolish. He had just returned from getting diesel for an excavator and was chatting with Richard Basciano, the building’s owner.

Basciano’s wife was there too.

Less than 10 minutes later, Campbell’s life changed forever as the building collapsed. That’s when the three-story, freestanding wall crushed a neighboring – and busy – Salvation Army Thrift Store.

“I started hollering, ‘no, no, no,’” said Campbell Thursday during the third – and final – week of testimony in his third-degree murder trial.

The collapse killed six people and injured 13 more. Campbell, 51, is also charged with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and other offenses.

On the stand, Campbell said he never saw the deadly collapse coming, that he never considered the site dangerous.

“I would have shoveled manure before I put anyone’s life in danger,” said Campbell.

During cross-examination, a sometimes testy Campbell said no one connected to the project expressed concerns about the wall that crushed the thrift store. And that, on the day of the collapse, the only work he ordered was for some metal debris to be placed into a dumpster.

That contradicts testimony from other witnesses, including former employees and the project’s architect.

Prosecutors also said it contradicts an interview Campbell had with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in which he told an investigator that he had also ordered an excavator operator to chip away at the eastern wall of the building.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Campbell. “You got to be out of your mind.”

Plato Marinakos, the architect granted immunity for being part of the Philadelphia district attorney’s grand jury investigation, testified that he stopped by the site the night before the collapse and told Campbell that the unsupported wall needed to be taken down.

Campbell said it would have been “impossible” to demolish a 30-foot brick wall – by hand – in one night.

For three night before the collapse, Campbell allegedly ordered two of his men to stand on a ladder on the roof of the Salvation Army Thrift Store and tear down the western wall.

The night before the collapse, the better part of three stories still stood.

Campbell also said that Sean Benschop, the site’s excavator operator, never asked about the wall. Benschop was the only other person to be criminally charged in connection with the collapse.

In July, Benschop pleaded guilty to everything but third-degree murder in exchange for a lesser sentence. Under the deal, Benschop will spend no more than 10 to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors offered Campbell the same deal, but he opted to go to trial. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

“I didn’t kill anybody,” said Campbell, wiping away tears. “I got up and went to work.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal