City changes tack, will have witnesses at collapse hearings

Six people were killed and 13 injured when a wall collapsed onto a Salvation Army thrift store June 5 during demolition at 22d and Market Streets.
Six people were killed and 13 injured when a wall collapsed onto a Salvation Army thrift store June 5 during demolition at 22d and Market Streets. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 17, 2013

With questions mounting over its passive oversight of an ill-fated Center City demolition project, the Nutter administration told City Council last week that it would not provide further public testimony at a series of related Council hearings.

With no explanation, Everett A. Gillison, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff and deputy mayor for public safety, informed the chairman of a Council investigative committee, Curtis Jones Jr., that "no other administration officials will testify at the committee hearings."

The administration then reversed course Monday afternoon - about two hours after The Inquirer contacted the mayor's office to ask who made the decision to cold-shoulder the Council hearings, and why.

Jones said the administration had agreed to provide witnesses for the next committee hearing on Thursday, but said he did not know which officials or departments would be represented.

Council set up the panel last month after a four-story brick wall collapsed onto a Salvation Army thrift shop June 5, killing six people and injuring 13.

Gillison and Carlton Williams, the commissioner of licenses and inspections, testified June 19 at the first Council hearing, which steered clear of any direct discussion of the collapse.

Since then, the administration has ducked questions on several new developments, including:

The Inquirer's disclosure of letters and e-mails in which the building's owner, STB Investments Corp., repeatedly warned top city officials and the Salvation Army, weeks ahead of the collapse, that the demolition project could endanger the adjacent thrift shop. The administration says Deputy Mayor Alan J. Greenberger urged STB and the Salvation Army to "work out their differences" but has declined to say whether Greenberger alerted the Department of Licenses and Inspections, one of the agencies under his purview, to a potential public-safety problem.

The discovery of asbestos remnants at the demolition site, contrary to an inspection report filed by the building owners to get their demolition permit, stating that there was "no asbestos found" in the building to be torn down. The administration has withheld asbestos reports filed with the Health Department's Division of Air Management Services and told the agency to refer reporters to the mayor's press office, where their questions have gone unanswered.

Gillison did not return The Inquirer's call Monday.

Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Nutter, said the administration would provide "some information and testimony" at the next hearing Thursday as the result of "discussions" with Jones.

Councilman James Kenney said Council's staff had been seeking additional testimony from as many as 10 city agencies, with duties ranging from air pollution and risk assessment to emergency management and collecting taxes from city contractors.

Lawyers for victims of the collapse said Monday that the correspondence between the building owners and the Salvation Army, disclosed last weekend, put responsibility for the accident far above Sean Benschop, the excavator operator, who remains in jail, charged with involuntary manslaughter.

"All the parties involved in the planning - the owner, the Salvation Army, and the city - all recognized there was a looming hazard in this demolition, but despite that, the project went ahead without pause," said Robert Mongeluzzi, a lawyer who filed suit on behalf of relatives of a woman who was killed in the collapse and seven people who were injured.

"The Salvation Army knew or should have known that the demolition was not being done in a safe way," said James Golkow, a lawyer who represents Shirley Ball, a customer at the thrift shop who was pulled from the rubble by rescuers. "Instead of remaining open and inviting the general public inside, they have to hang a sign on the door that says, 'Closed.' . . . They could have done a lot more to protect people."


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

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