Philadelphia collapse survivor describes ordeal
ABOVE PHOTO: A reporter makes a photograph of a makeshift memorial for Kimberly J. Finnegan near the scene of a building collapse, Thursday, June 6, 2013, in Philadelphia. Finnegan was a co-worker of Felicia Hill at the Salvation Army Thrift Store where the wall collapsed on Finnegan, killing her.
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
By Joann Loviglio and Keith Collins
Philadelphia collapse survivor says she heard falling bricks seconds before walls crashed down. The downtown building was being demolished when it collapsed onto a neighboring Salvation Army Thrift Store, killing two employees and four customers. Police allege a heavy equipment operator had been high on marijuana. The city’s top prosecutor announced a grand jury was being convened to investigate a building collapse that killed six people and injured 13 others, including a woman who on Monday described hearing the sound of falling bricks moments before the walls came crashing down around her.
District Attorney Seth Williams said the scope and depth of the grand jury process will help prosecutors, the city and others to “completely and appropriately investigate” what happened when a downtown building under demolition collapsed onto a neighboring Salvation Army Thrift Store, killing two employees and four customers.
“I know Philadelphians demand action. I heard their voices loud and clear,” Williams said at Monday’s news conference. “We want Philadelphians to be patient as we gather all the evidence.”
Meanwhile, police detectives on Monday visited the north Philadelphia home of general contractor Griffin Campbell, who had been hired to demolish the four-story building that collapsed. A handful of investigators emerged from the home about 45 minutes later, carrying a box. Police and prosecutors earlier declined to comment on reports of a search of the home.
Campbell’s attorney issued a statement defending his record and the qualifications of an excavator operator charged in the case, urging that there be no “rush to judgment.”
Attorney Kenneth Edelin said in a statement that Campbell was “confident that the results of the investigation will reveal that professional and safety-conscious business practices were in place.” He said he believes his client will be cleared of responsibility for the tragedy.
Edelin said Campbell has more than 20 years in the construction business and four years in demolition and earlier successfully demolished several nearby buildings. He said excavator operator Sean Benschop was hired because of his “extensive experience” in demolition.
But he said Campbell never instructed the excavator to be used for the demolition that day. Because the company didn’t have access to the thrift store roof, he said, “the demolition of the wall closest to the thrift store was being done brick by brick.”
Edelin said federal and city inspectors and inspectors on behalf of the thrift store visited the site after demolition began “and gave the site a clean bill of health.”
Benschop surrendered Saturday to face six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 counts of reckless endangerment and one count of risking a catastrophe. He is the only person charged in the collapse and is being held without bail pending a hearing June 26. His attorney said the building collapse was an accident and his client is not responsible.
At least six survivors have filed lawsuits against the contractor and the building’s owner. One of them, Felicia Hill, said Monday that she heard bricks falling and looked at another co-worker just moments before the ceiling collapsed with the weight of bricks and debris.
“And then the wall came down, and I didn’t see her anymore,” Hill said of Kimberly Finnegan, who was killed on her first day of work at the thrift store.
After the collapse, Hill heard another co-worker calling, “Somebody, help me, please. Somebody help.”
Attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, representing Hill and five other survivors, said Hill is emotionally scarred but lucky.
“There were six people that weren’t so lucky,” he added.
Williams said the grand jury likely will “investigate the myriad municipal agencies and departments, and policies and protocols, surrounding the collapse.”
Also Monday, the City Council announced the formation of a special committee to conduct a broad review of procedures and regulations regarding licenses and permits, construction and demolition, the certification of workers, building maintenance and other issues.
Unsafe construction work is a common issue in Philadelphia, and “unfortunately, it took such a tragic event for us to finally do something about it,” Council President Darrell L. Clarke said.
Councilman Jim Kenney, who is the chair of the labor and civil service committee, said safety standards are sometimes not met for the sake of costs.
“There is an underground economy that’s grown up as a result of the issue relative to the cost of construction,” Kenney said. “The cost of the construction should not trump safety.”
Kenney also said there needs to be better coordination between the building inspectors and the revenue department, which could help “track down these unscrupulous and unlicensed and non-tax-paying entities.”
Since the June 3 collapse, officials have begun inspecting hundreds of demolition sites citywide. Mayor Michael Nutter said Friday that the city was preparing to implement sweeping changes in its regulations of building demolition.
A demolition permit indicates that contractor Griffin Campbell was being paid $10,000 for the job. Building owner Richard Basciano’s attorney declined to comment.
Memorial services began over the weekend for some of the victims, who included a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a retired secretary and a Liberian immigrant and longtime store employee.
A woman pulled from the rubble more than 12 hours after the collapse was upgraded Monday from critical to serious condition, a hospital spokeswoman said. One other victim remained hospitalized. The 11 other survivors are all out of the hospital.
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“I want to extend my heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Anne Bryan, Roseline Conteh, Borbor Davis, Kimberly Finnegan, Juanita Harmin and Mary Simpson,” said District Attorney Seth Williams. “The tragic circumstances of last week have robbed the city of six amazing Philadelphians. Over the past few days we have learned about how Anne, Roseline, Borbor, Kimberly, Juanita and Mary touched so lives on a daily basis and the city is truly a little bit darker today now that they are gone.”
PHOTO: Borbor Davis
“I would also like to send my thoughts and prayers to the 13 victims who were able to make it out alive from last Wednesday collapse,” continued the District Attorney. “I know that the battle to truly heal for all of you is just beginning.
And I want to thank the Firefighters and first responders along with residents who just happened to be on the street at the time of the collapse.
You all risked your own lives to make sure that those 13 victims made it out alive. You are truly the example of what is good and right about the city of Philadelphia.”
PHOTO: Rosaline Conteh
“I am also announcing today that I will be convening an Investigating Grand Jury to look into the deadly building collapse. The scope and depth of the Grand Jury process will allow us to completely and appropriately investigate last Wednesday’s tragedy. Since the Grand Jury process is secret this office will have no other comment on it.”
The District Attorney’s Office over the weekend charged 42-year-old Sean Benschop with six counts of Involuntary Manslaughter, 13 counts of Recklessly Endangering Another Person (REAP), Causing a Catastrophe and Risking a Catastrophe. He is currently being held without bail and his next court appearance is scheduled for June 26, 2013 in courtroom 306.
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