Investigators: Sidewalk gave way, caused construction lift to topple, killing 1

Overlooking the scene of a fatal lift accident at 21st and Walnut streets in Center City (right). At left is part of the sidewalk that gave way beneath the weight of the lift, investigators say.
Overlooking the scene of a fatal lift accident at 21st and Walnut streets in Center City (right). At left is part of the sidewalk that gave way beneath the weight of the lift, investigators say.
Posted: October 13, 2009

In a dramatic lunchtime accident yesterday, a construction-lift operator harnessed to a 125-foot boom was inspecting a church for loose masonry when the lift suddenly toppled over, killing him and injuring three others in Center City.

At 1:13 p.m. yesterday, witnesses said, the operator, Jimmy Wilson, 41, of Franklinville, N.J., was screaming atop the boom of the lift as it fell, gouging out the roof of a five-story apartment building, knocking down a streetlight, and landing atop a Verizon truck parked on 21st Street near Walnut.

A Verizon worker was standing alongside the truck when "the boom hit the truck and a body fell beside him," said John Soda, local manager of construction with Verizon. "He was shaken up pretty bad," Soda said.

"It was mayhem," said driver Marvin Little, 43, who was waiting in traffic after delivering flowers for Natures Gallery Florist, on Walnut near 21st. "People screaming, bricks falling, sparks from the traffic light and pole all at once. It was like an earthquake."

Inside the flower shop, Little's boss, Mohammad Nematic, 52, said when he looked out his 21st Street window, "I saw a man by the Verizon truck, hanging under the crane, his head was down, and the color of his face was blue. He was bleeding from his nose and head."

"A lady was wedged under the crane," said Little, who got out of the car to help her. "It was unreal, unreal."

Meantime, debris from the damaged apartment roof crashed on top of a parked black Toyota Corolla, damaging its roof, smashing the front windshield and breaking out the rear window. Inside the car at 21st and Walnut were a 65-year-old man and a 67-year-old woman.

Pedestrians rushed to help them out of the car and walk across the street, said witnesses. The woman got out of the car saying, "I'm OK, I'm OK."

As debris rained on cars waiting for the light to change, a frightened Tina Marie Shumakeris, 9, heard screaming and "just opened the car door and ran across the street," said her mother, Tina Marie Shumakeris, 26.

"It was really a horrific scene," Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said. "We were just fortunate it was a holiday because it would have been tons more traffic and tons more people."

An investigation was opened by the city Police, Fire and Licenses and Inspections departments, Philadelphia Gas Works and Peco Energy, Fire Capt. John Cleary said. There was a possibility that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration would take over the probe.

Last night, L&I inspectors allowed tenants of the damaged building to reenter their apartments, except the fifth-floor apartment where the roof was damaged. The tenants of that apartment got their cat and found shelter elsewhere, said Nutter's spokeswoman Maura Kennedy.

The building owner said she would send repairmen to fix the roof today, she added.

Earlier, Ayers said, Medic 7, on scene within three minutes, "immediately had to rescue the guy from the cage of the crane. They had to cut his harness to get him out of there."

Wilson was taken to Hahnemann University Hospital and pronounced dead at 1:30 p.m.

The 70-year-old woman found under the lift was taken to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was treated for a broken right arm and listed in good condition.

Also taken there was a 67-year-old woman, who suffered a bruise on her head, and a 74-year-old man, who was visibly shaken, said Ayers.

Ayers says one of the lift's wheels may have been on a fiberglass panel that covered cable-TV equipment.

The fiberglass cover "gave way under the weight and caused it to topple," he added.

Mayor Nutter, who visited the scene, called it a "freak accident."

"I feel terrible. A citizen was killed and three people were injured," he said. "The equipment was too heavy for where it was located."

At First Presbyterian Church, pastor Jesse Garner said that Masonry Preservation Group (MPG) was using the lift to "examine the exterior masonry [of the church] making required repairs . . . of loose stone work.

"I heard a sound clearly not right, a banging, and looked out the window and saw people running to the corner," said Garner, one of several people who called 9-1-1. "I knew the crane was involved but not what happened."

Garner said that MPG told him: "This is the first time anything like this ever happened."

Robert Howard, of MPG, told the Associated Press that Wilson was married and worked for MPG for 20 years.

"He was good people and he was a safe guy," he added.

Staff writer Stephanie Farr contributed to this report.

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