Inquirer Editorial: Aim high with building probes

Richard Basciano , whose Market Street building collapsed and killed six people this month, pictured in 2012. File
Richard Basciano , whose Market Street building collapsed and killed six people this month, pictured in 2012. File
Posted: June 17, 2013

Philadelphia can't let bit players become the fall guys for the shoddy demolition that left six people dead inside a Salvation Army thrift shop.

The level of responsibility goes much higher than Sean Benschop, the excavator operator who allegedly tested positive for drugs and has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the June 5 tragedy, which also left 14 people injured.

Responsibility also goes higher than city building inspector Ronald Wagenhoffer, who apparently killed himself Wednesday night, leaving a video message in which, according to mayor's spokesman Mark McDonald, Wagenhoffer said he was devastated by the tragedy and wished he had done more to prevent it.

No one knows why Wagenhoffer felt he should have done more. Earlier, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, Everett Gillison, said "this man did nothing wrong," and that the city Department of Licenses and Inspections "did what it was supposed to do." But making clear-cut declarations while several investigations continue seems premature.

Separate probes by Nutter, City Council, and the District Attorney's Office should all take aim at every level of the decision-making chain that led to the improper demolition of a building. The investigators must not let themselves be swayed by rationalizations they are likely to hear from other city officials, property owners, and contractors.

For decades, this city has enabled property speculators who neglect old buildings that fall apart, blight neighborhoods, and destroy lives. A review by Inquirer reporter Stephan Salisbury of 30 years of newspaper articles found repeat after repeat of stories about old buildings rotting and collapsing.

Typically, someone is killed or injured. City leaders get upset and promise change, but do little until the next junk building kills or maims someone, or becomes such an eyesore that it can no longer be ignored. It's time for the city to hold property owners responsible for their properties.

It was disheartening to hear a former mayor, Ed Rendell, defend Richard Basciano, who owns the building that fell through the thrift shop. Basciano is among a host of city property owners who have long been criticized for not taking care of buildings that blight their surroundings. Yet Rendell focused on the "spectacular" plans that the past contributor to his political campaigns had for the site of the tragedy.

Philadelphians should pray that someone looking into why dilapidated buildings are able to remain in dangerous condition for years will consider whether it has anything to do with the property owners' having powerful friends. Do something about that and maybe things really will change.

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