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The Market Street collapse, 2 years later: Memorial planned, but legal battles continue

The empty lot near 22nd and Market streets is a jarring sight, decorated this week with tiny flags, flowers made of fabric and spinning toys in memory of what happened here.

There’s a banner to remind us that a memorial at this now-empty lot will come one day for the six people killed and 14 injured. Behind that banner is a single tree. And behind that are piles of stones, overgrown weeds and empty beer cans and food wrappers.

Two years ago today, a four-story, free-standing wall fell here while it was under demolition, crushing a Salvation Army thrift store along the way. Two men were since criminally charged in the deaths of six people. Many lawsuits have been filed. And the city itself has had to answer for what some deemed shoddy inspection work and a lack of effective oversight from its overworked Department of Licenses and Inspections.

This morning, family members of those killed gathered with Mayor Michael Nutter to remember the collapse and look toward the future. The June 5 Memorial that recently won Art Commission approval is half-funded — it’ll feature three granite stones, each with two windows to represent the six people who were killed. Their names will be etched into stone.

While two people will answer to criminal charges, and many others to lawsuits, what’s really changed since the massive collapse?

What happened

The Market Street collapse that took place in 2013.

Fox 29

Early on a Wednesday morning as summer was starting in 2013, a vacant building near the intersection of 22nd and Market streets was being demolished, occasionally shedding bricks and pieces of the building onto the ground and sidewalk below.

At 10:43 a.m., what was left of the four-story building collapsed onto the Salvation Army store below. Six people — two workers, a student, a nurse, a retiree, an audio engineer –were killed. Others were trapped under the rubble.

While some witnesses on the scene described the rubble as “a war zone,” others quickly began to speculate how something that seemed so preventable could have happened. Attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, known in Philly as “Mr. Collapse King,” represents the estates of three people killed in the collapse and six others who were injured.

He told Billy Penn earlier this year that demolition is one of the times when building collapses are most likely to occur. But he says these accidents are wholly preventable if building owners properly inspect their own structures before demolition and search for deterioration. Clearly, in this case, that wasn’t done in the days leading up to the collapse. And attorneys are asking “why?”

After two years, those questions still remain.

The criminal side

A grand jury was convened shortly after the collapse to investigate who knew what about the stability of the structure, and who is ultimately responsible for the fact that it went down during something as routine as a demolition.

Two men were criminally charged in wake of the accident. Sean Benschop, 43, the backhoe operator, and Griffin Campbell, 51, the demolition contractor, were each charged with six counts of third-degree murder and 13 counts of reckless endangerment. Last year, they were denied bail reductions. If convicted, they each face life in prison.

The grand jury that was brought together to determine if others should be criminally charged will, by law, expire next week. Because of grand jury secrecy, no one knows if the investigating group will recommend more charges be filed, especially against Richard Basciano, the elusive owner of the building. But for the grand jury, time is close to running out.

The civil side

Jeffrey Goodman, an attorney with Mongeluzzi’s firm who is handling much of the litigation related to the Market Street collapse, said that though it’s been two years since the incident, the lawsuits on behalf of those killed and injured remain moving forward.

In December 2013, a judge consolidated the lawsuits filed by victims against Salvation Army, building owners, contractors and architects involved in the demolition of the structure so that witnesses in the case wouldn’t have to be deposed by attorneys more 15 times.

Goodman said coordinating with the schedules of 20 attorneys to gather for depositions can prove difficult, but he says the case is moving forward “efficiently,” noting that lawyers are about halfway done with depositions and have all but completed putting together discovery.

Recently, an attorney for STB Investments Corp. — the company that owned the properties being demolished on the 2100 block of Market Street — was ordered to be deposed in connection with the case. Goodman said half of that deposition took place this week, and attorneys expect to finish deposing the attorney within the next month.

But for the victims they represent, it’s become about more than winning the case.

“When our clients came to us about this case, they said it isn’t about money,” Goodman said. “To them, it’s about finding out what happened, and making sure it doesn’t happen to someone else’s family.”

To do that, Mongeluzzi has testified before City Council’s investigating committee about what needs to change in how the city goes about its business inspecting sites and working with contractors so that accidents like this don’t happen again. And Goodman said the firm and other attorneys involved have taken it upon themselves to speak with the media and public as much as possible so pressure can continue to be placed on those who, they say, needs to be scrutinized.

The city side

Among those who were scrutinized after the tragedy was the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, the taxpayer-funded agency that was supposed to keep tabs on demolition of the building.

“There have certainly been some changes made, most importantly requiring a demolition survey and plans,” Goodman said. “Those changes are good, but implementation is a key part of it.”

After the collapse, L&I faced questions about why they weren’t keeping tabs on the demolition process. A week after the collapse, the inspector who was supposed to do just that was found dead in what was ruled a suicide.

The agency has been deemed chronically underfunded and understaffed. After the Market Street incident, the Mayor’s Special Independent Commission to Evaluate the Department of Licenses and Inspections convened, and found that L&I’s 300 inspectors were asked to complete an average of 22 inspections a day, or four inspections an hour over an 8-hour workday.

The agency made a number of changes in how it goes about inspecting buildings and what it requires from contractors, but a February report shows the agency still has a long way to go toward ensuring structural safety across the city — namely nearly $14 million in additional funding and more than 100 new workers.

Glenn Corbett, who chairs that commission, told Billy Penn in February that steps L&I has taken after the tragedy were positive. Those include instituting an emergency services division and requiring demolition safety plans before contractors go hacking away at structures.

But Corbett says the most important step L&I needs to take is downsizing and splitting into smaller, more nimble agencies with more focused missions. It’ll be up to City Council to make that happen.

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