Inspector in collapsed building case kills himself

A pedestrian pauses at the site of the building collapse on Market Street. City officials defended the work of an L&I inspector who visited the site three weeks before the collapse.
A pedestrian pauses at the site of the building collapse on Market Street. City officials defended the work of an L&I inspector who visited the site three weeks before the collapse. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 15, 2013

Philadelphia city officials say they have found nothing to fault in the performance of a city building inspector who apparently committed suicide Wednesday night, a week after six fatalities at a Center City demolition site that had been one of his assignments.

"I will state right here, right now, this man did nothing wrong," Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, Everett Gillison, told reporters Thursday, confirming the death of Ronald Wagenhoffer, 52, an employee of the Department of Licenses and Inspections since 2002.

Police found Wagenhoffer's body shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday in a pickup truck in upper Roxborough, on a secluded block of Shawmont Avenue near Nixon Street lined only with trees. Wagenhoffer lived blocks away. He had a gunshot wound to the chest. Police called it an apparent suicide.

A timeline released by the city last week identified Wagenhoffer as the L&I worker who inspected a demolition site on the 2100 block of Market Street on May 14, responding to a citizen complaint to the city's 311 line. At the time, two smaller buildings had been torn down and a larger four-story structure was mostly intact.

City records indicate no subsequent inspections. On June 5, an unbraced four-story brick wall from the larger building toppled onto a Salvation Army thrift shop, killing six people and injuring 13 others.

Standing in for Mayor Nutter, who was in Chicago for a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, Gillison praised Wagenhoffer as a dedicated employee who bore no responsibility for the collapse.

"From what I've been able to review, he did his job and he did it the way he was supposed to do it," Gillison said. "The department did what it was supposed to do under the code that existed at the time. We are proud of this department and its employees, period."

A law enforcement source said Wagenhoffer had trouble coping after the disaster. "It just looks like he was consumed with guilt," said the source. "He wished he could have done a better job."

While the person who filed the 311 complaint said he was worried about dangerous conditions at the site, the city's paperwork focused on whether the project was properly permitted and posted.

Wagenhoffer, who was paid $60,363 annually, reported that the complaint was "unfounded" and that the site permit was complete, according to the timeline.

There were no other inspections before the collapse, according to city officials, and they say L&I's code and procedures do not call for inspections while demolitions are underway.

A number of people gathered inside Wagenhoffer's house Thursday in the Dearnley Park neighborhood, where he lived with his wife and young son. A man who said he was Wagenhoffer's brother-in-law declined to comment, saying the family needed time to grieve.

In the days before Wagenhoffer's death, all L&I employees had been offered counseling, Gillison said. While others in the department knew Wagenhoffer had taken the building collapse personally, Gillison suggested, Wagenhoffer "was handling it the way they thought he would handle it, which was to work even harder." He worked Wednesday until after 3 p.m., Gillison said.

L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams said Wagenhoffer's death added to the grief the department has felt since last week.

"We take that pain home with us at night and we wake up to it each and every day," Williams said. "We strive to protect our citizens by enforcing the building codes and that's what Ron did. He worked extremely hard prior to that tragedy and he worked hard after the tragedy. He was a dedicated civil servant who loved his job."

Wagenhoffer initially worked as a carpenter for the Department of Public Property, beginning in 1997, and moved to L&I in 2002.

"He was a professional craftsman, always striving to be better," Williams said, mentoring other inspectors and earning certifications in multiple fields.

Nutter spoke to Wagenhoffer's widow by telephone Thursday morning, offering his condolences.

"She let me know that Ron loved his job at L&I and he loved the men and women that he worked with," Nutter said in an e-mail to the entire city work force. "He believed strongly in L&I's mission to serve and protect all of the citizens of Philadelphia and he took pride in the work he did each and every day. Please know that I share Ron's pride in L&I - the department works hard on our behalf and I am grateful to all of its employees."

Confidential counseling services are available to city employees 24 hours a day through the Department of Behavioral Health, Nutter said.

"I urge you to reach out to others for help if you need it," Nutter said. "Please - talk to a counselor or to your family, your colleagues, a member of the clergy or a trusted friend. Know that you are not alone in your feelings of loss and there are many who stand ready to help you."

Multiple investigations are underway into the collapse and the events leading up to it, by city, state and federal agencies, including a criminal probe by a Philadelphia grand jury.

Sean Benschop, an excavator operator at the demolition site, has been arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter, recklessly endangering another person, and risking a catastrophe.

City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., head of a special committee appointed to look at the city's handling of demolition work, said he planned to begin with a hearing Wednesday.


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

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Summer Ballentine, Troy Graham, Jennifer Lin, Mike Newall, Paul Nussbaum, and Dylan Purcell.

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