Thomas Fitzgerald: Collapse tragedy appears to strain Nutter

Posted: June 09, 2013

Mayor Nutter looked down at the paper on the lectern Friday, caught his breath, and intoned a kind of somber civic rite intended to comfort the city after the senseless deaths of six people when a building under demolition collapsed on a Salvation Army thrift store.

"Every life is precious and valued," Nutter said in the silence of the ceremonial Mayor's Reception Room. "As a citizen and as your mayor, I am deeply saddened and hurt by what happened in my city, our city."

Then he apologized to the dead and their families, and he apologized as well to the injured survivors pulled from the wreckage, and then he apologized to their families.

He didn't say so, but in his actions, the mayor seemed to imply that Philadelphia's government deserved some measure of blame for acts of commission or omission that led to the catastrophe.

Of course, Nutter didn't see it that way. When reporters pressed him to admit that the city had messed up, the mayor said that was not so, that he did not want to "prejudge" the multiple investigations underway. But the apology coincided with the announcement of an ambitious plan to tighten regulations governing demolition contractors and projects, including criminal background checks and random drug testing.

Doesn't that extensive overhaul proposal suggest serious flaws in the inner workings of city government?

Not so, Nutter argued. "There are a lot of facts [still] to be gleaned," he said. The answers will come. The mayor suggested that the accident presented the opportunity for government innovation and improvement, worthy goals at any time. Nutter was on comfortable ground, that of the policy wonk.

It had been a chaotic two days full of the moments that test a leader. Nutter finished strong, but at times his performance was uneven under the glare of wall-to-wall live TV coverage.

On the first day, he was testy and defensive. To be fair, the man had to be stressed, with managing the city's response, starting investigations, and briefing reporters. And he may already have known that one of those missing was the daughter of City Treasurer Nancy Winkler, a trusted adviser.

Around 12:35 p.m. Wednesday, less than two hours after the collapse, reporters were baying at Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. Nutter stepped forward. "Just hold on, guys," he said. "Just hold on for a second, please. Just hold on."

A dozen people by that point had been transported to hospitals, Nutter said, and firefighters would keep looking to see if there were more people trapped under the pile of debris.

He said no one knew what was under the rubble, "so you don't need to ask me a bunch of questions about that."

At least there was no profanity. Nutter last year called the NRA's proposal to put armed guards in schools a "dumb-ass idea" and termed a teenage shooter an "a-hole."

Later that evening, Nutter swatted aside questions about the sequence of the Department of Licenses and Inspections' actions, saying it was unseemly for the media to speculate while people were suffering.

He went before the cameras at the scene for the top of the 11 p.m. newscasts Wednesday, announcing that six had died. His voice was taut.

For a man whose public persona is at the confident/know-it-all end of the spectrum, Nutter seemed humbled by Friday afternoon.

At one point, when reporters were asking for details of the police investigation, Nutter responded with, "I am just the mayor."

And that said it all.

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at

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