Five years after Philly building collapse, memorial park dedicated to honor victims

An 8-foot sculpture is engraved with the names of those killed when an unsupported building wall crushed a popular Salvation Army thrift store.

Listen 2:10

A memorial park now sits on the sliver of Center City Philadelphia where, on a sunny morning exactly five years ago, a deadly building collapse killed six people, injured 13, and left many more heartbroken.

Near the center of the park at 22nd and Markets streets, rises a curved 8-foot sculpture engraved with the names of the lives lost when an unsupported brick wall of a building under demolition pancaked onto and crushed a popular Salvation Army thrift store.

The three-piece monument faces away from the busy intersection.

“The idea of the shape of it was to embrace the families. It’s sort of like arms wrapping around,” said artist Barbara Fox, who helped design the park.

Under each name is a different colored glass cube set to glow at night. At the center of the sculpture, is a poem by  Emily Dickinson:

Unable are the loved to die
For love is immortality,
Nay – it is Deity –
Unable they that love – to die
For love reforms vitality
Into divinity

Nikki Harmon wept Tuesday, as the centerpiece of the small park was unveiled during a dedication ceremony. Her aunt, Juanita Harmon, was one of the six killed on June 5, 2013. The 75-year-old was shopping when the freestanding wall flattened the thrift store.

“She was retired – going on cruises, going to plays. And that’s what she should have continued doing and not have it end like this,” said Harmon.

Former City Treasurer Nancy Winkler, whose daughter Anne Bryan was killed in the collapse, spearheaded the effort that eventually led to construction of the roughly $3 million memorial park.

It took the better part of five years to make it a reality — to create a physical space to remind people what can happen when “greed and indifference” trumps public safety, she said. And why that should never happen again.

“A new line was crossed on June 5, 2013. The city was shocked by the level of greed and indifference to human life and safety by so many people who were aware of the dangerous demolition, but did nothing,” Winkler told the dozens who gathered for Tuesday’s ceremony, which came just a day after a contractor was killed during in a building collapse in the Brewerytown section of North Philadelphia.

Also killed in the Market Street collapse were Mary Simpson, 24, an audio engineer shopping with Bryan; Roseline Conte, 52, a nurse; Borbor Davis, 68, a thrift store employee; and Kimberly Finnegan, 35, a cashier at the store.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office charged two construction workers tasked with demolishing the vacant commercial building that collapsed onto the thrift store.

General contractor Griffin Campbell, who had little demolition experience before he was hired, is serving 15-30 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault.

Excavator operator Sean Benschop is serving exactly half of that sentence after pleading guilty to the same charges. On the morning of the collapse, Benschop was using his machine to chip away at a wall across when the wall fell on top of the thrift store.

Prosecutors argued the deadly collapse occurred because the building was demolished in a dangerous way – using heavy machinery instead of taking it down by hand and removing all the lateral supports of the wall that slammed onto the thrift store.

Police never arrested any officers with the Salvation Army, the building’s owner or others involved in planning and overseeing the botched demolition.

They were sued in civil court and ultimately ordered to pay victims and their families a combined $227 million. Nearly $100 million of that went to Mariya Plekan, who lost both legs at the hip after being trapped in the rubble for more than 13 hours.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

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