Lawyer: Contractor 'didn't see' machine demolishing building

Sean Benschop (left), was the excavator during Wednesday's building collapse in Center City. Griffin T. Campbell (right) owns the company hired to demolish the building.
Sean Benschop (left), was the excavator during Wednesday's building collapse in Center City. Griffin T. Campbell (right) owns the company hired to demolish the building.
Posted: June 13, 2013

The heavy equipment blamed for causing a building collapse that killed six people last Wednesday was only to be used that day for removing debris, and the contractor in charge of the site "didn't see" the excavator doing demolition, his defense attorney said Tuesday.

Kenneth Edelin, attorney for contractor Griffin Campbell, said his client was on the job site at 22d and Market Streets when the building fell on the neighboring Salvation Army thrift shop.

"He was scared to death, just like everybody else," Edelin said. But, he said, Campbell didn't see what went wrong because he "was not right where the wall was."

During a news conference at his Center City law office Tuesday, Edelin was asked several times how Campbell could have failed to notice - or even hear - a heavy excavator doing demolition work.

Each time, Edelin reiterated that Campbell's orders were for the excavator to be used only to remove debris.

"He did not give any instructions to anybody to use the excavator on that portion of the building," Edelin said.

The unsupported wall that toppled onto the thrift store on a busy shopping day was supposed to be taken down brick by brick, Edelin said,

He also said that he believed the owner of the building, Richard Basciano, was on site during the collapse, "and I believe he and Mr. Campbell were speaking."

Basciano, 87, has long owned big chunks of the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Market Street, including the Forum XXX-rated theater and the Les Gals peep show.

The area was considered one of the last development gaps in Center City. Basciano last year announced plans to begin redeveloping the area with apartments and commercial space - and he tried unsuccessfully to acquire the Salvation Army parcel.

Basciano has not spoken publicly since the collapse. His attorney, Thomas A. Sprague, did not return a phone call.

Attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, representing a group of collapse victims, said "it was shocking" if Campbell and Basciano were on site "yet failed to observe and correct the obvious safety hazards."

The excavator operator, Sean Benschop, has been charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter, risking a catastrophe, and other charges. A toxicology report found he had marijuana in his system.

Benschop had done previous jobs for Campbell, and had also done three demolition contracts for the city, with two pending.

Campbell's view of Benschop's qualifications "was the same as the view held by the City of Philadelphia, who had hired Mr. Benschop to do any number of demolitions," Edelin said.

Benschop's attorney, Daine Grey Jr., did not return a call Tuesday to discuss Edelin's comments.

Edelin said inspectors from the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and an engineer sent by the Salvation Army all visited the site after the demolition began.

"Obviously, the demolition was allowed to continue," he said. "Everything was found to be fine and operating as it should be."

Since the collapse, L&I inspectors have visited about 300 sites with open demolition permits, Mayor Nutter's office said Tuesday. About a third were active sites, and L&I stopped work at five of them for various violations.

Investigations are being conducted by OSHA, the city, and the district attorney, and City Council has promised to hold hearings this summer.

District Attorney Seth Williams said he would impanel a grand jury to investigate criminal charges and any oversight failures that might have contributed to the collapse.

Edelin said his client spoke to police and federal OSHA inspectors on the day of the collapse.

Fourteen people were injured in the collapse, including Benschop.

On Tuesday, Shirley Ball, 60, of West Philadelphia, became the eighth survivor of the disaster to sue for damages.

James Golkow, Ball's attorney, said she had been shopping in the store on the morning of June 5.

"She heard a loud boom and the next thing she knew she was trapped under rubble," Golkow said.

She was one of the first people to be carried out by rescue workers, he said.

Of the lawsuits to be filed so far, only Ball's names the Salvation Army as a defendant. Golkow said witnesses had complained of bricks hitting the roof of the Salvation Army in the weeks prior to the collapse.

Major Robert Dixon, head of operations for the Salvation Army, could not be reached for comment.

The OSHA inspectors who previously visited the site responded to a report of workers not wearing safety harnesses, Edelin said.

He also said the Salvation Army rebuffed a request to put scaffolding on the thrift store roof.


Contact Troy Graham

at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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