Investigators end search for personal items at collapse site

Posted: July 05, 2013

Amid the ruins from the Market Street building collapse, investigators have spent the last two weeks sifting through the rubble in search of personal belongings of survivors - and the dead.

The list of items lost was long. A wallet. A purse. Keys. A cellphone. A favorite family photo.

Yet when the painstaking search for those things ended this week, very few had been found.

Those looking for personal belongings came up mostly empty-handed, and many of the items, now imbued with history and tragedy, may never be recovered.

Felicia Hill, who worked at the Salvation Army thrift store at 22d Street and Market, survived the collapse but left her purse behind in a locker. In it were her keys, wallet, identification, cellphone, and photos of her seven children - all lost in the debris.

Hill has accepted that. She has secured new identification cards. She bought a new cellphone last week.

"It clearly isn't as important as the fact that she saw her friends and coworkers die," said her lawyer, Emmett Madden. "The stuff is the least of her worries in light of everything that happened."

Still, the police Crime Scene Unit and contractors from Mellon Certified Restoration pored through the debris searching for lost items weeks after the chaos of the collapse.

Crime Scene Unit officers were on the scene from June 24 to 26 to gather things that might either belong to victims or be useful in the ongoing criminal investigation, said Tom O'Grady, Mellon's project manager for the site. Yet most of what they found, he said, was Salvation Army merchandise.

O'Grady's team of five would sift through the rubble and hand items of ambiguous ownership to the police. Salvation Army merchandise is being stored at Mellon's facility in Yeadon.

Once the surface level was cleaned of debris and few personal belongings were found, police left the site. O'Grady's team then searched the basement, which he said held mostly store inventory and fixtures. He said he did not know how many personal items had been found, though he noted that an "awful lot" of the excavated material appeared to be merchandise.

Shirley Ball's shoes may lie scattered among that merchandise. Ball, a minister who was trapped between a banister and the rubble during the collapse, emerged barefoot, her lawyer said. She also lost a black-leather handbag with the keys to her church and a photograph of her grandson, he said.

Police have not begun to return the few personal items recovered in the search because of the ongoing criminal investigation and pending lawsuits, said police spokesman Lt. John Stanford.

A spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office declined to comment Wednesday, citing the ongoing grand-jury investigation.


Contact Theodore Schleifer

at 215-854-5607 or tschleifer@philly.com, or follow

on Twitter @teddyschleifer.

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