Complaints of shoddy work, unsafe conditions before collapse

Members of the Philadelphia Police Crime Scene Unit take a metal beam from the site of the building collapse for evidence. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Members of the Philadelphia Police Crime Scene Unit take a metal beam from the site of the building collapse for evidence. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 08, 2013

Despite multiple complaints, shoddy demolition work at 22d and Market Streets went uninspected for more than three weeks before the deadly collapse of a building Wednesday, raising basic questions about the city's competence regulating demolition projects.

Six people were killed and 14 injured when a four-story brick wall fell onto an adjoining single-story Salvation Army thrift shop.

Mayor Nutter and Licenses and Inspections Commissioner Carlton Williams acknowledged Thursday that the city had granted a demolition permit for that project without any inquiry into the contractor's qualifications for demolition work. The city does not require demolition contractors to establish their qualifications.

As it set about the job, the Griffin Campbell Construction Co., licensed for the first time in January, ignored basic industry standards, set forth by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), requiring lateral bracing for exterior walls and gradual, floor-by-floor removal of upper stories.

Although the city began fielding citizen complaints about the Center City project as early as May 7, city inspectors reported no problems at a May 14 visit and did not follow up.

Williams told reporters Thursday that the city typically does not inspect demolition work in progress, waiting until projects are completed before surveying the sites for rubble removal, grading, and elimination of any holes or other hazards.

Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the city relied on OSHA to look into safety issues at active demolition sites.

The federal agency, which focuses on worker safety, has just 11 compliance officers and two assistant area directors monitoring work sites in Philadelphia, Chester, and Delaware Counties, a U.S. Labor Department spokeswoman said.

"If that's the city's normal procedure, to just let it fly, I find that breathtaking," said Jay McCalla, a former deputy managing director under Mayor John F. Street who helped oversee thousands of abandoned-property demolitions.

McCalla said L&I had paid close attention to demolitions under Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative and talked with OSHA about worker-safety issues. But OSHA "cannot possibly" monitor all the demolition in the city, he said.

Carl S. Mason, owner of Central Salvage Co. in Center City, said he saw the site of the accident several days before the collapse and immediately recognized that the demolition work was unprofessional. He said workers were not using hard hats or safety lines, all required by insurers who handle typical Center City projects.

Mason said the cost of that type of demolition, if done by a reputable company, would have been about $250,000. Campbell stated on his city demolition permit application that the cost of the job was only $10,000.

Acknowledging the shortcomings of the city's inspection policies exposed by Wednesday's disaster, Nutter announced an aggressive inspection campaign Thursday, including the four other construction and demolition sites connected to Griffin Campbell Construction.

The city issued stop-work orders at two of Campbell's sites, 1300 Walnut St. and 320 Butler St., for improper permitting, and reported no problems at two other sites. Inspectors shut down Woody's Bar, at 1300 Walnut, at 10 p.m. Wednesday.

The Department of Licenses and Inspections "is also undertaking proactive inspections of all active private demolition sites throughout the city," the mayor's office said in a release.

About 100 demolition permits have been issued this year, the mayor's office said, and 300 remain open since 2009. As of Thursday, L&I had inspected about 10 percent of the 300.

Twenty-five states have OSHA-approved demolition-safety plans, but Pennsylvania is not among them.

In an excavation or other construction project, L&I compels the builder to have an engineer on site to make sure the work is done safely and properly, said a person familiar with L&I operations who spoke on condition of anonymity. It does not do that for demolition.

Inspectors often find demolition crews that are not certified or trained in "any kind of structures," said the source.

L&I Commissioner Williams said Thursday that in response to a citizen complaint on the city's 311 line, an L&I inspector visited the building at 2134 Market on May 14. That building was also being torn down by the same contractor, and the inspector found no violations. At that time, no demolition had begun on 2136 Market, Williams said.

Stephen Field, who made the complaint, said that at the time, "there were pieces of facade hanging over a subway exit. I didn't fathom the idea of it falling on a Salvation Army. But there were people walking on that sidewalk. The fact that they could not see anything wrong with that is extraordinary."

Patrick Gillespie, head of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, said two brick workers, on a job at the building next door to the accident site, had reported problems to L&I and OSHA the day before the collapse.

Gillespie said the brick workers first complained to the demolition workers about the conditions, but were ignored.

The building trade unions have long complained about shoddy work and slippery finances of nonunion companies, and have seized on the Campbell firm as Exhibit A.

City officials said Thursday that Campbell originally applied for a contractor's license in late 2012, but was rejected because he owed back taxes. After he agreed to four separate payment plans with the city in January, he was granted the license. He stopped making payments after filing for bankruptcy in March, officials said.

OSHA, which launched an investigation of the collapse Wednesday, had opened an inquiry into a complaint received two weeks earlier, said a spokeswoman.

"OSHA has an open inspection involving Campbell Construction that was initiated on May 15 in response to an anonymous complaint alleging fall hazards," said Lenore Uddyback-Fortson. "Prior to that, the company does not have any OSHA history."

Standards developed by the demolition industry call for a written engineering survey in advance that outlines all safety measures such as shoring and bracing walls, blocking off sidewalks, and assuring the safety of adjoining structures, said Mike Taylor, executive director of the National Demolition Association in Doylestown.

City records show no evidence of such preparations. Witness accounts and photographs before the collapse show the wall next to the thrift shop unsupported and the sidewalk in front of the building not blocked off.

Salvation Army store clerk Nadine White, who was injured in the collapse, filed suit Thursday against building owner Richard Basciano and contractor Campbell.

Her attorney, Robert J. Mongeluzzi, is asking for the right to start inspecting the wreckage and questioning whether Griffin Campbell met OSHA's requirement to complete an engineering survey before it began demolition.


Contact Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Craig R. McCoy, Chris Palmer, Dylan Purcell, and Andrew Seidman.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|