Owner of building in deadly collapse denies seeing wall fall, fleeing scene

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 On June 5, 2013,  rescue personnel work the scene of a building collapse on Market Street in downtown Philadelphia that left six people dead and 13 injured. The owner of the building under demolition told jurors he 'realized something fell. I didn't know what it was.' (AP file photo)

On June 5, 2013, rescue personnel work the scene of a building collapse on Market Street in downtown Philadelphia that left six people dead and 13 injured. The owner of the building under demolition told jurors he 'realized something fell. I didn't know what it was.' (AP file photo)

It happened soon after he arrived at the site.

On June 5, 2013, veteran real estate developer Richard Basciano stepped out of a cab near 22nd and Market streets in Center City Philadelphia. He wanted to check on one of his properties, a four-story building under demolition.

Roughly 15 minutes later, a freestanding, three-story wall collapsed onto and crushed a popular Salvation Army Thrift Store next door.

Six people died, and 13 others were injured.

On Wednesday, at the civil trial tied to the tragedy, Basciano told jurors he didn’t look at his building, hear or see any demolition, or watch the wall fall, as the site’s demolition contractor has testified.

“That is a gross distortion of the facts,” said Basciano.

The 91-year-old said he was in the bathroom at the time of the collapse, but did see the massive cloud of dust that billowed over the busy intersection when he emerged.

“I realized something fell. I didn’t know what it was,” said Basciano, speaking publicly for the first time since the collapse.

He didn’t stick around to find out. As reporters, rescue crews and city officials swarmed to the scene, Basciano said he headed to an appointment at a nearby eye doctor’s office.

But he wasn’t fleeing.

“That is a damn lie. A damn lie,” shouted Basciano when asked by plaintiffs’ attorney Steve Wigrizer.

The collapse, one of the city’s deadliest days in recent history, dashed Basciano’s dream of building a mixed-use development with a pair of shimmering towers. Known as the gateway project, the development was planned to connect Center City to West Philadelphia.

A handful of buildings Basciano owned would first have to be demolished, including the “Hoagie City” property, which shared a wall with The Salvation Army Thrift Store on the corner of 22nd Street.

Basciano, whose real estate company STB Investments Corporation is based in New York, hired architect Plato Marinakos to be the owner’s representative on the project. Marinakos would be his “eyes and ears” in Philadelphia by providing regular updates and photos of how the demolition work was progressing.

On Wednesday, Basciano said Marinakos, a fellow defendant, “showed that he had ability” while working for him in the past.

On the stand this week, Marinakos told jurors that he had never been an owner’s representative on a demolition project and wasn’t familiar with federal safety regulations concerning demolition. He said he relied on Griffin Campbell, the demolition contractor, for that.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have argued that was a big mistake because Campbell, one of two men behind bars for his role in the collapse, had little demolition experience. 

Before Market Street, Campbell had never demolished a commercial building and didn’t have a contractor’s license with the city. His biggest demolition job was helping to take down a pair of burned-out row homes on Erie Avenue in North Philadelphia.

Marinakos, who recommended Campbell for the job, has said he “trusted” him, even when he stopped by the Hoagie City site the night before the collapse and saw the freestanding wall looming above the thrift store.

“I think he was competent,” said Marinakos of Campbell on Wednesday, “but there was a major mistake made at the end.”

Marinakos, who was granted immunity from criminal charges in exchange for testimony, has said  warned Campbell about the “imminently dangerous” wall and told him to have it down by morning, but it never happened.

Last October, a jury convicted Campbell of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault. He was sentenced to 15-30 years in jail.

Excavator operator Sean Benschop is serving half that after pleading guilty to the same charges. On the day of the collapse, he was chipping away at the eastern wall.

Basciano said Wednesday he never saw the excavator on site.

Testimony continues Thursday.

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